National Truth and Reconciliation Day a time for remembrance in Sheshegwaning

Sheshegwaning First Nation community remember children forced to attend residential school with a walk to the sites of two former residential day schools. photo by Lori Thompson

SHESHEGWANING – September 30 was a day for remembrance in Sheshegwaning First Nation, where community members wore orange shirts and gathered to share and reflect on residential schools, on survivors and those who didn’t make it home.

Verna Hardwick, Anishinaabemowin language teacher at St. Joseph’s School in Sheshegwaning, led a walk from the band administration complex to the site of two former residential day schools. Ms. Hardwick attended the Catholic school along with her siblings. Her father had attended the Anglican school. It divided the community, she said.

The former Anglican school was destroyed and rebuilt. It is now a multi-use building that houses the library and other community spaces. The original school had two entrances as boys and girls were segregated. Although the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church building is still there, the Catholic day school is gone. The church was decommissioned in 2018 after the structure was condemned.

Ms. Hardwick shared how children were punished if they used their language, were slow learners or had difficulty learning. Because she attended day school within her own community, she was able to speak her language at home and remained fluent. She doesn’t recall many details about the schools. She doesn’t want to.

Ms. Hardwick attended public school in Gore Bay for her senior elementary years. Those years were bad too, she said, because the kids in Gore Bay were very racist. By the time she attended high school, the current Manitoulin Secondary School was newly built. It was a feeder school for other First Nations and she no longer felt alone.

As the walkers reached each former day school site, Ms. Hardwick sang a song and provided tobacco so those present could offer prayers.

Rhiana Buchanan is a community support worker in Sheshegwaning and coordinated the day’s event. She is non-Indigenous and her partner is a band member. “Without the truth there is no reconciliation,” she said. “Without reconciliation we can’t move forward. It starts with us. We must humble ourselves and step off the privilege that we non-Indigenous people have and really look at this through a different worldview.”

Apologies are one thing but actions speak louder, she said. “You can say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I feel bad’ until you’re blue in the face, but what are you really doing to seek truth and reconciliation?”

A community member added, “It’s great that everyone is supporting us by wearing an orange shirt and spreading awareness, but what work is really being done behind this day? Everybody that bought an orange shirt needs to be actively reading up and educating themselves.” She suggested that people start by educating family and friends that have a skewed view, “even if it is an uncomfortable conversation.”

Following the walk, people gathered back at the complex. “This isn’t a celebration,” said elder Loretta Roy. “This is a remembrance. We are remembering the children who didn’t make it home.” 

Ms. Roy spoke about her days at residential school before introducing the drum for an honour song. There will be more graves found, she said. “People need to be prepared to face the truth. There will be more.” 

She remembered a much earlier walk with her father, when she was about five years old. ‘Remember who you are,’ he told her. ‘Never forget the language.’ She didn’t forget.

Language is a theme that arose in many conversations throughout the day. The Anishinaabe language is not separate from history, culture and traditional ways of knowing. Preventing the practice of their own language, leading to a precipitously low number of fluent speakers, was a powerful factor in the planned assimilation and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples across Canada. 

Chief Dean Roy said in his opening remarks he recalled that when he heard about the remains of 215 children recovered from a former residential school site in Kamloops, it had the effect of reopening old wounds for some and instilling anger for many. He felt that getting angry wasn’t helpful in this time, because thousands more sites and more harsh truths would be revealed. Admittedly, not a popular opinion, he said. He went on to explain that the attention this was getting meant that it was a promise kept. “We will no longer be burying the truth. We are very appreciative that we now have this day to remember the children who never made it home.”

Elder Bill Antoine also told everyone to remember who they are. “You are Anishinaabe,” he said. “Don’t forget the language.” Chief Roy learned his language in university, which means he understands it but does not speak it well, he shared. He’s happy that his children are now able to learn to speak and understand the language at school.

Ms. Hardwick led a powerful exercise using words on orange shirt cutouts. She has been the language teacher in Sheshegwaning for nearly two years now. Before she retired from teaching for the Sudbury District Catholic School Board, she spent time teaching those students about residential schools. “They couldn’t believe that anyone would do that to children,” she said. 

Cutting the children’s hair was the first thing that happened when children arrived at residential school, and they even put kerosene on it to kill bugs, she said. “They bathed the children, scrubbing them hard with brushes and telling them they were dirty because of the colour of their skin.” The children never received any hugs and were never comforted when they were hurt or sick or lonely. They weren’t allowed to speak their language. They were hungry and were often fed mush that could be up to a week old.

The day concluded with a pipe ceremony and a lunch that included some traditional foods, ending with two minutes and 15 seconds of silence at 2:15 pm. 

“The resilience and the strength and the love that this community has in full force today,” said Ms. Buchanan. “At the end of the day they all come together and there’s nothing that can break that apart.”