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Ontarians mark first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to remember horror of residential schools

'This is only the beginning,' residential school survivor says
Oct. 1, 2021
Allison Jones

For residential school survivor James Bird, the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation represented an incredible moment to work toward healing, but he wanted Canadians to remember why it was being marked.

"Let us never forget, ever, that this day happened because children's bodies were found," Bird said at a ceremony Thursday at the University of Toronto's Massey College.

Numerous Indigenous communities have reported finding hundreds of unmarked graves this year at former residential school sites.

Chief R. Stacey Laforme, of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, told the Massey College ceremony that he wrote a poem the day the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Nation in Kamloops, B.C., announced that ground-penetrating radar had detected what was believed to be 215 such graves (the First Nation has since revised the estimate down to 200).

"I sit here crying, I don't know why," Laforme began. "I didn't know the children. I didn't know the parents, but I knew their spirit.

"I knew their love. I know their loss. I know their potential. And I am overwhelmed by the pain and the hurt, the pain of the families and friends, the pain of an entire people unable to protect them, to help them, to comfort them, to love them."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday the day is 'an opportunity for us to reflect and strengthen our relationships with Indigenous Peoples, an opportunity for us to play an active role in supporting healing and reconciliation.' (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)
Hundreds gathered at the Toronto Zoo to mark the day and have conversations about the Indigenous experience, including Melissa Hamonic, associate director with the Native Child and Family Services of Toronto,

"We've all had family members who did not return from residential schools," Hamonic said Thursday. "We've all had family members who've gone missing with little to no concern."

Also in attendance was Toronto Mayor John Tory.

"I was a student of Canadian history in university and yet the amount we learned about any of this, it was just a few minutes devoted to years of study. I don't know why that was, and I think it's being remedied now," Tory said

Premier Doug Ford, who attended the ceremony along with Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, said the recent discoveries of remains at the sites of former residential schools underscores the need for Ontarians to learn about the lasting harms of the system.

"This is an opportunity for us to reflect and strengthen our relationships with Indigenous Peoples, an opportunity for us to play an active role in supporting healing and reconciliation," he said.

Bird said his hope as a survivor is that the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is not just a one-day event.

"My hope is that this day represents the start where all Canadians begin to individually review our consciousness when it comes to the horrific history and help guide Canada collectively into a better tomorrow, and when Sept. 30 appears again on our national calendar we commit to a year-long journey of national healing," he said.

"This is only the beginning. We are all left with much more to be done."

To honour the day, students at Tom Longboat Junior Public School in Scarborough erected 7,500 orange flags that read "Every Child Matters" on a grass field.

Sandra Bonnell, a teacher at the school, said the day has prompted some much-needed conversations and questions from students.

"They keep asking, 'Why did the children have to go so far away?' Why were they taken forcibly?'" Bonnell told CBC Toronto.

"As an educator, I have to explain to them everything we can hide from the past," she said. "But our hope for the future is moving forward."

The federal government announced the new statutory holiday in June to commemorate the history and ongoing impacts of the church-run residential schools where Indigenous children were torn from their families and abused.

Ontario has not made it a provincial statutory holiday.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said this week that the province will be guided in its decisions on how to mark the day by Indigenous leadership, and that right now there wasn't a consensus.

The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.