Children's shoes placed at the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre as part of the June 25 commemorative gathering. (Submitted)

In Honour of the Children: Commemorative Gathering June 25, 2021

Senator Murray Sinclair said, “We should never forget…it’s part of who we are as a nation. And this nation must never forget what it once did to its most vulnerable people.”

Almost a full month ago, we learned of the findings of 215 mass graves on the site of former Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds, which is situated within Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Sadly, for many Indigenous peoples, we knew that this was only the beginning, as we have heard stories of and know children that have not returned from these schools. Members of my family attended Muscowequan Indian Residential School, Gordon’s Indian Residential School, Lebret (Qu’Appelle) Indian Residential School, and Elkhorn Indian Residential School. My Mushum was one of the children that ran away from one of these schools, walking over 100km to our community only to be met by an Indian Agent who immediately returned him to confinement. My Grandmother’s family went deep into the forest to protect and hide the children from all authority. As a result, she hide us when were children when she feared for our safety – in the attic or in the root cellar. 

Yesterday, another shocking discovery at Cowessess First Nation, on Marieval Indian Residential School grounds where approximately 751 unmarked graves of students where located. 

Today, we are gathered here to commemorate the lives of the 215 children, the 751 children, and those yet to be discovered. Which according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be as much as 6000 children. To these children I say: “You were never forgotten, you are found, and your stories will be told until they transform this country, our organizations, our educational institutions, and our hearts. You are TRUTH, and TRUTH is meant to be sought, heard, felt, and is meant to change us to be more fully human. Your Truth is meant to heal.”

As Indigenous peoples, we are people that place our children at the very centre of our kinship circles, they are the most sacred gift from Creator. It’s unfathomable to know that violence and harm has been directed towards such innocence – the children of these lands. Every Indigenous person across this country is affected by these findings. For many it is unearthed pain, it is exposed hurt, ready to be touched with healing and soothing medicines. Let us each be soothing medicine to each other.

I would like to share a poem that has been circulating for the past month. It reminds us that even when humanity fails, creation and Creator do not: 

For the Children
When they buried the children
What they didn’t know
They were lovingly embraced
By the land
Held and cradled in a mother’s heart
The trees wept for them, with the wind
they sang mourning songs their mothers
didn’t know to sing
bending branches to touch the earth
around them. The Creator cried for them
the tears fall like rain.
Mother Earth held them
Until they could be found.
Now our voices sing mourning songs
with the trees. the wind. light sacred fire
Ensure they are never forgotten as we sing

- Pawnee storyteller, spoken word, researcher, and activist Abigail Echo-Hawk

Today, and over the next few days, weeks, and months, I encourage you to lean into family and friend networks, kēhtē-ayak (elders) and knowledge keepers, and your home communities for comfort and strength. You are not alone, we are not alone in this struggle. Let us find strength and solace in each other.

Gitchi-miigwetch for your presence today.

Jacqueline Ottmann is the Vice-Provost Indigenous Engagement at the Unviersity of Saskatchewan.

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