A traditional ceremony was held Wednesday on the Blood Tribe reserve to mark Orange Shirt Day, in honour of Blood Tribe children impacted by the residential school system.
The ceremony took place at the St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Church, which served as a residential school for more than half a century.
Government-sanctioned residential schools tore thousands of Indigenous children away from their families, culture and language for 160 years as they were taken away from their homes to go live in the boarding schools. The residential school system has been called a form of cultural genocide.
The last residential school in Canada only closed in 1996, but the intergenerational and lingering impacts these schools had on Indigenous people can still be felt today, especially for survivors of the residential school system.
“I did have some friends in elementary that stayed at the residence there — while they went to day school — and my parents didn’t talk about their experience until us kids were adults,” said Terri-Lynn Fox, director of the Kainai Wellness Centre.
For the first time ever, the community now has an official number of how many children from the Kainai reserve attended residential schools and did not return home.
“The National Memorial Student Registry was publicized last fall. So last fall, it was after Orange Shirt Day and we did not have that list,” Fox said.
One-hundred-and-seventeen students from the Blood Tribe went missing as they attended the residential schools administered by Christian churches.
Fox said the information alone will be a huge undertaking for the community to acknowledge and then grieve.
“Some we know are very close family members — I actually have an aunt on the list,” Fox said.
“It’s quite an acknowledgement — not only for Blood Tribe people, but for Canadians in general — to be able to see the realities of our history.
“But as we move forward to prepare and facilitate the truth and conciliation calls to action, this is one of them, to acknowledge their spirits and share their stories.”
An elder at the ceremony said his older sister was one of the many children who went missing while being in the care of the schools.
“At night… I’d wake up crying [and] I’d ask my parents, ‘Is everything OK?’ They’d say, ‘No, it’s OK.’ They didn’t know what happened to her,” recounted Keith Chiefmoon, a residential school cultural support co-ordinator with the Kainai Wellness Centre.
He said his parents asked school officials where their little Grace went, but the residential school gave no answers and even threatened to call the police on them as they inquired about the whereabouts of their child.
“Nobody knew anything about it, and she just disappeared,” Chiefmoon said.
“There was always something missing. We were a very close-knit family. Every time you’d talk about it, my mom would break down,” he recalled.
Chiefmoon said the tragic disappearance of his sister, who was no more than seven years old when she went missing, left a void in their lives.
He added that the family always wished there was some way they could just bring her back home, where she’d be safe and everything would be OK.
At Wednesday’s ceremony, the names of the missing children were read out loud by Fox as Chiefmoon and his peers played a ceremonial drum, remembering and celebrating the spirits of all those lost souls.
Attendees wore orange shirts to commemorate the memories of the children.
“To be able to do the ceremony, to be able to acknowledge them in their good way, because in our way, in our tradition, we always tell them, ‘It’s time for you to go, to go on your journey,’” Chiefmoon explained.
He said he feels some sense of relief that the “sending-off” ceremony took place for all the children that are gone but never forgotten.
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