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M'Wikwedong event honours 215 children buried at residential school

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As a sacred fire burned Friday in Owen Sound to honour the 215 children whose remains were found buried at a former residential school, local Indigenous leaders were calling on the federal government to conduct investigations at every institution site in Canada.

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Chief Greg Nadjiwon of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that calls on Ottawa to create an agency to investigate each residential school site and First Nations orphanage and identify every child found.

“The highest priority is finding all children that have died and been buried at a residential school or First Nations orphanage and returning them to their families and communities,” says the letter, which was also sent to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.

“In every instance, the manner and circumstances of their deaths must be investigated. The persons, institutions, agencies, officials and levels of government responsible for their deaths must be held responsible. The anonymous internment of children must be recognized as a crime whatever the circumstances of their deaths.”

Renee Abram, executive director of the M’Wikwedong Indigenous Friendship Centre where Friday’s sacred fire ceremony took place, said she would also like to see investigations at each of the former residential schools in Canada.

“I think that would be good to do. There were so many residential schools across Canada and everybody in our community has heard stories. And while this 215 was a shock to many, to a lot of us it’s not as much of a shock as the first in what we think will be many to be found,” she said.

Just over a week ago, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation revealed that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. uncovered the remains of 215 children, some as young as three.

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The children have been honoured and mourned across Canada, with the burning of sacred fires, moments of silence and lowering of flags to half-mast at schools, government buildings and other sites.

People have also been leaving shoes in memory of each child whose life was lost at the residential school at locations across the country, including at the Gitche Namewikwedong Reconciliation Garden at Kelso Beach Park in Owen Sound.

This week, Alexandra Community School in Owen Sound created a memorial in front of their building and have invited the community to write messages of love and support on small orange flags that form a heart. School officials say the messages will be shared with the Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash communities.

At M’Wikwedong, an outdoor ceremony was held from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with a sacred fire, pipe ceremony, drum songs and prayers.

Visitors were invited to stop by to offer Assema (tobacco) at the fire.

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was a come-and-go-style event and visitors were asked to observe social distancing protocols and wear masks.

Abram said the sacred fire is a traditional way of honouring the spirits of the children who were buried without recognition at the residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and sending their spirits off in a good way. Tobacco is a traditional Indigenous medicine that is used to deliver prayers to the creator, she said.

Abram said the discovery of the 215 children has been traumatic and triggering to many Indigenous people.

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“We have staff whose parents were in residential schools or grandparents and also we have community members who were themselves at residential schools,” she said.

“It’s all kind of triggering and that’s another part of today’s ceremony is to hopefully help start some healing.”

Nadjiwon’s letter to Trudeau says the Chippewas of Nawash community’s history includes the trauma of residential schools, carried by many survivors and their families to this day. The people of the community live daily with the mental scars of mistreatment and abuse that members suffered in the schools, it says.

The loss of the children at residential schools “is a tragedy that affects all Indigenous people and communities. None of us are untouched,” it says.

The letter notes that Canada has pledged to enact all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, which included identifying the children who died in residential schools, locating their burial places, notifying their relations, allowing for ceremonies and memorials to take place and maintaining those places in a manner befitting the graves of beloved children.

“It is well past time that Canada answered these outstanding questions and implemented the calls to action. We demand action now before all who might remember our lost children have also passed,” Nadjiwon wrote in the letter, which is posted to the Chippewas of Nawash website.

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