Editor’s note: The story below may trigger difficult or traumatic thoughts and memories. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s 24-hour crisis line is available at 1-866-925-4419.
Even the memories were too much to bear for some of the Elders sitting to be honoured at Campbell River’s Truth and Reconciliation Day ceremony.
Tears were shed by Elders as they sat in a circle near the stage in Spirit Square. Hundreds had turned out to the fifth annual Orange Shirt Day, also known as the national Truth and Reconciliation Day. The event started with a prayer, before participants walked through the streets of Campbell River led by a group of Kwakwaka’wakw singers.
As they returned to Spirit Square, the singing continued in a circle near the stage. Singing was followed by an address from Namgis First Nation Chief Wedlidi Speck.
“It feels like on one side of this that it’s a beginning of something, and on the other side of it there’s a lot of sorrow,” he said. “There’s hope on one side and tremendous grief on the other. When we acknowledge this day and we come together, Everybody here is making a statement that we want to walk together differently in Canada.”
Speck continued, talking about the “government’s intention to kill the Indian in a child. There was no escaping that. Everyone of us who are standing here today have been impacted by that colonial decision.
“When we talk about killing the Indian in a child, it means disconnecting the child from their language, from the metaphors and the concepts in that language. Disconnecting that child from their relationship to the environment, to the world around them. The names that our ancestors gave the land.”
That disconnect has reverberated forwards in time, he said, but added that this was the first step towards changing that.
“It’s taken a long time for us to heal these wounds and to step into holding Canada accountable for that experience,” he said. “I thank you for coming to understand why we walk the way that we walk. It wasn’t a chosen path, but a path that was marked by colonialism, that wanted to take our lands away, and our dignity and self-respect. A lot of us are changing that by sitting here today.”
We Wai Kum Chief Chris Roberts also spoke. Roberts recounted his own experiences of being a caucasian-appearing Indigenous man.
“I come from a proud family with deep roots in my culture, and I grew up being ashamed I was white, to be honest. I wished I was a full-blooded Indian all my life. I struggle with my identity, but the way that people have welcomed us. I have been given a name and a responsibility to move forward as an elected leader to carry us forward in this world in a way that’s going back to the way it is supposed to be,” he said.
“As a caucasian-appearing person, I call myself an invisible minority. I’ve been a witness to racism and discrimination by people who don’t realize I’m First Nations. It hurts,” Roberts said. “I want to honour the people who came before us who had the courage to, despite what they were told… to know in their hearts that the right thing to do would be to not lose their language and to not lose their culture. That’s why we come here today.”
Roberts ended by looking to the future: “I learned about the white man’s burden around colonization and civilization. They had to go around and conquer,” he said. “I feel like the time we’re in right now, it’s flipped on its head. It’s the Indigenous Peoples’ burden to teach the rest of the world how to live and connect with the land and appreciate the earth.”
The event continued after a lunch break with a ceremony honouring those who survived residential school, and those who are no longer with us.