Siksika First Nation Elder Clement Leather delivered a message of coming together to heal during the City of Calgary’s Orange Shirt Day event in Fort Calgary on Friday.
The day also coincides with National Truth and Reconciliation Day and hundreds of people gathered in the park in that spirit. The day is dedicated to honor the departed and survivors of the residential school system in Canada.
“We must love each other,” he said, as a flag with the more than 2,000 names of those who died in the residential system fluttered behind him. “We have to work together and I think this is one of the things that brings us together. Whatever happened to our children in residential schools, the Creator wants us to work together to help each other heal.”
Leather, a survivor of the system, said the lessons his grandparents learned before he was taken from home at age four returned to him after he left school and helped him find a way forward.
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The city and the country as a whole have been working towards reconciliation since May 2021 when unmarked graves were discovered in the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Several other sites were discovered in the months that followed, sparking widespread public outcry and reaction from all levels of government.
The Orange Shirt Day event featured a number of speakers, drummers, native dancers and traditional Métis dancers, and was themed to Remember the Children.
This is the city’s second year hosting this event in Fort Calgary. Mayor Jyoti Gondek said councilors and staff are “on a dynamic and difficult journey to lead our city in a time of listening to the truth and coming to the point of reconciliation”.
Christine Arthurs, general manager of the people, innovation and collaborative services division, said the city is still working on reconciliation and is meeting the 94 calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee report. This includes recognizing the value of healing practices (Call 22) through events such as these, recognizing healing practices through Indigenous Gathering Places (Call 21), establishing the city’s Reconciliation Plan, and establishing a permanent monument to those who died in residential schools (Call 82). She gave no timetable on the last two.
Elder Wanda First Rider has worked for the Calgary Catholic School District for more than three decades. She is a survivor of residential schools and told how they were starved and prevented from drinking water or using the bathroom at night. She heard about and witnessed sexual, physical and mental abuse.
“At the time, I’d be wondering what’s going on with my family,” she said.
The schools sought to strip indigenous children of their identity by banning the use of their language and cultural celebrations and forcing their assimilation with a European way of life.
The result is intergenerational trauma and a population plagued by addiction and mental health crises as it fights systemic racism and poverty.
First Rider said she is always allowed to smear while working for the Catholic school board and that these ceremonies are important, but she wants a bigger step to be taken.
“We have to introduce our languages,” she said. “Because if we don’t speak our language, our way of life is lost. And we’ve lost way too much as it is now.”
There were a number of other events in town, including a powwow hosted by Siksika Health Services and the Calgary Hitmen at the Saddledome. There was a screening of the film The Road at Grace First Presbyterian Church to learn about the effects of residential schools and the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Nakoda First Nation organized a two-mile walk between McDougall Memorial United Church and Morley United Church, near the former site of the Morley Indian Residential School. Meanwhile, the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University both hosted several events.
Crystal Chrétien, who attended the Fort Calgary event with her two daughters, said it was important for her to take them down to educate them about Canada’s history and this reconciliation movement.
“My generation, we weren’t really taught about these things,” she said. “Now that everything is being exposed, and it’s really coming out now, I think it really makes you doubt. Question the past, question the future. What will it look like to grow out of this?”