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I went to a church in Remedios, Cuba today that brought me to tears. It has been a very long time since a building representing organized religion touched my heart, but the church was filled with people who genuinely cared for one another. You could feel the energy and love for each other. I had to walk away from my hosts briefly to catch my breath and take a minute for myself. When I collected myself, I told my friends that it had been a long time since I felt any connection to the physical house of God.

Those who know me, know that I was once a devout practicing Catholic. You could normally find me at a morning mass in town. As a little girl I relentlessly tormented my priest, Father Dunphy, to allow me to become an altar server so I could serve God. He relented and I became the first female altar server in Richmond County. I see the irony in it now but let’s not go down that road.

As I write this column, I’m thankful that I walked into that church and felt a connection. I needed a break because the night before I had become overwhelmed with stats and the personal stories I’ve heard while working with residential school survivors. I was torn on how to present the residential schools to those who don’t know anything about them.

So, I’m going to practice what I preach and try to help you understand why we need to observe this day through compassion and most importantly, love.

First let me say thank you to my Creator, and ancestors, they help me walk this road and continually teach me lessons so that I can become a better person. And as September 30th approaches, my visit to the church was a good reminder that it once had a purpose other than the systemic assimilation of Indigenous people.

Did you know that September 30th is the day Canada has designated as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation? It’s a day that Canadians are supposed to remember the children who attended the Indian Residential Schools, to remember the children who didn’t return home. Numbers tell us that more than 6,000 didn’t return, but we know that number is greater.

What was a residential school? A residential school was an institution created by the federal government to essentially take the Indian out of the Indian through education, prayer, and manual labour. It was also a place where children were deprived of love, kindness, and compassion. It unfortunately administered hate, intolerance, sexual, and mental indignation to children and created a legacy of broken generations.

Canada had more than 130 Indian residential schools. The first one opened in 1831 and the last was closed in 1996. More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended the schools, but considerably less returned home to their families. Figures tell us that more than 6,000 children didn’t return, but we know the number was much greater.

Children attended these schools. Let me say that again, children. They ranged in age from four to sixteen, when they were released from the schools. These children were taken from their parents, grandparents, and homes that were filled with love, kindness, and compassion. Think about that for a moment, if you have children, ask yourself what that first day of school would have looked like to you. It makes me physically sick to think about it because I have a son who is just twelve years old. His first day of school for me was filled with panic, anxiety, and apprehension. Will he be okay? Will someone be kind to him if he’s lost? Will someone make sure he has his lunch, and will others accept him?

Our children start school in Canada at what, age six? We drop them off and happily have them return to our homes at the end of the day. Residential schools were not set up that way, they took your babies when they were as young as the age of four and didn’t return them until they were teenagers.

Now, I want you to think about having to relinquish your babies to a group of strangers: priests, nuns, police officers, and in our case, Indian agents. Your babies are not welcomed warmly but are subjugated to some of the worst treatment a child could experience on their first day. You have your hair cut off and are doused with lye to take away the filth that Indigenous children are perceived to have.

Your worldly possessions are stripped from you, you are also separated from your brothers if you are a girl and separated from your sister if you are a boy. You are not allowed to speak to them when you see them pass by and when you speak the only language you know you are told to speak another language that is unknown to you.

You are physically hurt for speaking that language and you are taught on your first day that this will be the way it is to be until you leave this cold concrete building. You start your day as early as 5:00 am to pray, your life is scheduled from the time you awake until you go to bed. But you don’t sleep like you used to when you were home because you are fearful that someone will take you out of your bed to do unimaginable things to you.

You know this to be true because you have seen this happen and you wait for it to be your turn.

Yes, our Indigenous children were not only mentally and physically abused, they were sexually abused by the people who were supposed to care and teach them. I want you to think about your own children at the age of four and ask yourself, could my child handle this type of treatment? Now I want you to remind you that more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend these schools.

September 30 is the day the feds have declared as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. A day to remember the Survivors and their families. This shouldn’t be a day for you to celebrate, it should be a day of reflection. You should reflect on how this occurred, how it happened, how it was allowed to occur, and then ask yourself why nobody helped these babies who were taken to residential schools. Then you should ask yourself why the hell you didn’t know about these institutions that were set up by the government and churches.

Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, Action Number #80 states: “We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honor Survivors, their families, and communities, ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.” Only four provinces have done so, Nova Scotia commemorates this day but doesn’t make it a paid general holiday under its Labour Standards Code.

September 30th is the day for all Canadians to observe the atrocities for which Canada is responsible. I ask you to stand with me and remember my people who have suffered unimaginable indignities and ask yourself, could you have survived, and if you did, what kind of human would you now be? Those children are now adults, and they carry the mental and physical memories and scars of their experiences. So, if you’ve said to yourself or to someone “they need to get over it” ask yourself if you would be able to get over it. Also ask yourself if your school had a graveyard attached to it.

I apologize to any of the residential school survivors who may be reading this, I am sorry if this column brought up any memories or impacted you in a way that I will not be able to understand. I apologize for the people who did this to you. I apologize that humans allowed this to happen. I apologize that you were forgotten about for so many years. I apologize that man used a book to determine your worth.

To all my Indian and Residential School Survivors, I honour you! I honour your strength. I honour your resilience. I honour your worth. I honour your capability to survive. I honour your journey. I honour your capacity to survive. I honour your courage and fight to live every day. I honour the love you show to others when love wasn’t shown to you. I honour you.

And in my way, I will honour you through my words. I will continue to speak for those who are not able to speak for themselves. I will continue to stand up for my people when it feels uncomfortable. I will speak up when I am told to shut up. I will speak to save our languages, our culture, our heritage, and our archaeology. But most importantly, I will do my best to do it in a way that is impactful but doesn’t hurt others like you were hurt. I will always ask my ancestors and Creator to help me teach only through love, because love is the only way we can ensure something like this doesn’t ever happen again.

I am a daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of an Indian Day and Residential School Survivor and I am proud of their courage, strength and resilience.

I am thankful that I walked into that church. It feeds more than 300 people a day. I hope in some way that this column fed your spirit.

We can’t change the past, but we can change how we walk and move forward.

SUPPORT LINE 1-844-413-6649 An independent, national, toll-free support call line is available to provide support for anyone who requires assistance. This line is available free of charge, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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