At least 250 people gathered outside Grande Prairie City Hall Monday night to honour the 215 young children whose remains were discovered in an unmarked mass grave at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. President of the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre and the President of the Alberta Native Friendship Centre Association Len Morissette says the day served as a day of mourning for all victims of residential schools throughout Canada.
“I think it opened peoples eyes… there it is, there’s the truth… you can’t hide that. We’ve been talking about residential schools for a long time and we have Orange Shirt Day and everything else but, I think with what happened in Kamloops as much as it was a mass tragedy, I think it opened peoples’ eyes.”
A 215 second moment of silence was held with each second representing one of the children. The only break in the silence came from the sounds of young children playing in the crowd, a notable reminder of the youth taken away from generations of Indigenous families.
Indian residential schools operated in Canada between the 1870s and the 1990s. Based on death records, it’s estimated by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation that about 4,100 children died at the schools. However, it’s been said the total is likely much higher.
Morissette feels vigils like the one Monday night help serve as a reminder of the effect residential schools had on Indigenous communities across Canada.
“Today is a day of mourning but it’s also a day of people waking up to the issues that our country has; our country isn’t perfect. By having the community show up and us going to city hall and just seeing the turnout of multi people, all nationalities to just honour the moment… it was beautiful.”
The event opened with an introduction from Morissette and a prayer from elder Loretta Parenteau-English. Clinton Soto then shared his family’s experience with residential schools, and performed a song. Monique Hommy also sang a traditional song passed down to her.
In the day leading up to the vigil, shoes were collected at the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre. They were then laid out in front of City Hall, 351 pairs in total. Grande Prairie resident in attendance Brenda Hemphill says it was a gut-wrenching sight.
“I saw that and I just about burst into tears; it was such a strong visual.”
Morissette hopes that by people understanding the effect that residential schools had on the community that the community and people will be able to heal.
“It’s all about those small steps towards a bigger journey, and today was definitely a small step no matter what triggered that journey.”
Flags in the City and County of Grande Prairie, Town of Peace River, Town of Sexsmith, Town of Wembley and Town of Peace River will be lowered until June 9th to honour the lives of 215 Indigenous children who died in the care of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. The Grande Prairie Public School Division has also lowered all of its division flags.
Support for residential school survivors is available through the Indian Residential School Survivors Society by calling toll-free at 1-800-721-0066. A 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is also available for emotional support or assistance at 1-866-925-4419.
(Photos: Abby Zieverink, MyGrandePrairieNow Staff)