On Sunday, thousands crossed the Cambie Street bridge in the Walk for Reconciliation to acknowledge the legacy of Canada’s residential school system. They later convened at Strathcona Park to listen to speakers and watched performances that called for solidarity around efforts to create constructive steps forward.
From 1871 to 1996, “at least 150,000 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit children” were seized from their families and sent to residential schools in a government-ordained attempt to assimilate them into Canadian culture.
“The worst thing you can be is Indian — that’s what I was taught when I was little,” said the survivor who opened the event. “I knew they were capable of killing me. They [built] those schools so we’d die.”
She also talked about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her experiences, but finished her speech on a hopeful note.
“I ask everyone involved today [to] open your heart and realize these are all your brothers and sisters. I ask Creator to bless you all and make us all one race — the human race.”
“We need each other”
This theme of unity could also be found in the march’s slogan — “namwayut,” which translates into “we are all one” — and later speeches and performances at Strathcona Park.
“I knew innately that reconciliation gives us the possibility to find new ways to go forward together,” said Reconciliation Canada Ambassador Chief Robert Joseph, who is himself a residential school survivor. “I want to say to you that Aboriginal people cannot do it alone, that we need each other.”
This ideal was further complemented by tangible steps to take, both in the everyday life and policy context.
National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde told the crowd that they can help create a reconciled future by getting rid of of their stereotypes of Indigenous people, calling out prejudice and teaching people about the legacy of residential schools.
BC Premier John Horgan stated that his government acknowledged the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the 94 Calls to Action and previous court cases that promised Indigenous rights. He finished by expressing that working together was the best way forward for reconciliation.
“Let’s take the love and hope and opportunity today, take it tomorrow and the next day and the next week and the next month, and make a better British Columbia together.”
Other notable speakers included Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Minister of Justice Jody-Wilson Raybould and Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow. The event also featured a number of performances from a variety of musicians and dance groups that ranged from Inuk musician Susan Aglukark to the Royal Academy of Bhangra.
“It’s not a cure”
Linc Kesler — the director of the First Nations House of Learning at UBC and the advisor to the President on Aboriginal affairs — had mixed feelings about the event.
He appreciated how the walk can highlight the importance of Indigenous issues in Canadian society, but noted that the event is limited when it comes to offering concrete advances.
“It’s primary importance is that it brings a bit of visibility to the kind of questions that remain for us to resolve surrounding our relationships,” he said. “It’s great at creating a moment of attention, but it in itself can’t really do more than that ... It’s not a cure and it’s not in itself a solution.”
Kesler also felt somewhat ambivalent about the concept of reconciliation and recalled hearing speeches by residential school survivors who had rejected the term.
“People have stood up and said ‘I’m not going to be reconciled,’ and what they’re indicating is that the history of what happened to them is so difficult that they don’t expect it to ever be fully addressed in their lifetime ... The idea where we’re [going to] reach a point where it’s all OK, they’re not expecting that to happen for them.
“And I have to say I kind of feel the same way myself.”
Regarding the long-term changes, Kesler expressed that although systematic changes need to be made, individuals can also create a difference by simply becoming more informed about Indigenous history to better understand the issues of today.
“People encounter reports on events in the newspaper and they’re usually conflicting — it’s usually about land claims or barricades or pipelines or deplorable conditions in some communities,” he said. “As people go to think about them or decide what to think about them, they have very little of contextual information that would allow them to think about them in an informed way.”
In that light, he appreciated the walk’s ability to raise awareness.
“If something like a walk brings attention to that and people follow up on it by coming to understand a bit more and thinking things through in a lot more detail, that’s important,” Kesler said.