Every word spoken by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel carried through the heavy air as hundreds of people attentively listened, desperately trying to absorb their meaning.
“Why did it take finding evidence of the children for you all to rise up together with us?” pleaded the Kanehsata’kehró:non, as she addressed the sea of orange shirts flooding the public space at a gathering held at Montreal’s Place du Canada to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30.
“Today, we mourn all the speakers, artists, singers, musicians, teachers, traditional knowledge keepers, the medicine
keepers, and the spiritual people. We mourn those losses of lives that could have been standing here with us,” continued Gabriel.
While the newly enacted federal holiday upholds the 80th call to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, the decree to establish a day honouring victims and families comes just short of six years after the official document was released in December 2015.
The urgency to act upon this call following the findings of more than 6,500 unmarked graves at former residential school sites has amplified demands for concrete and immediate work to ensure the recognition of Onkwehón:we.
“This needs to be a day of action,” said Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) and co-organizer of the event. “The prime minister and the government keep talking about today being a day of reflection, but reflection is completely useless – it doesn’t help us.”
Through her encouragement for all to take action, Nakuset remains hopeful that with more voices taking a stand can come accountability for those responsible.
“A lot of people who were part of residential schools and who are behind those mass graves are still alive today, so let’s find out what happened, who was in collusion with that and let’s finally rewrite history,” said Nakuset.
“Because today is about the potential of having a powerful day to inspire everyone to do more.”
There were hundreds of attendees who responded to the call put out by the NWSM and the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) to mobilize for the “Every Child Matters” movement commemorating the harrowing history and legacy of residential schools.
For Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the AFNQL, the gathering and march that ensued presented a privileged moment for sincere public awareness.
“The deaths of Joyce Echequan, Raphaël André, Siasi Tullaugak and countless others before them underscore the injustices still perpetrated against Indigenous Peoples,” wrote Picard in a press release ahead of the event. “We must act to stop it so that every Indigenous child in this country feels safe and respected.”
Led by the spirited beat of drums, speakers took turns delivering forceful speeches grounded in a pressing need for all to stand up.
“I had to be here,” said the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake chief Ross Montour to The Eastern Door. “There’s no way not to be a part of this when it’s a legacy that isn’t finished or hasn’t been dealt with completely yet.”
Accompanied by his son, Montour reflected on the reality of the tragedy which still torments the youngest of generations. “The whole history of residential schools runs through the thread of our family,” he said. “For all the discussions about reconciliation, we still have a long walk ahead to go – and this here, today, is just part of that walk.”
As every crucial step is taken, Gabriel reminds those in attendance not to forget the suffering on which these promises for action were built.
“For decades, they tried to get your attention. They tried to get all levels of government’s attention. And today, it is finding the bodies of the children who never came home that has gotten your attention,” said Gabriel.
“But I’m happy that you are awake – that your eyes are open now and that you can see what your country has done to the First Peoples of this land who helped your ancestors survive. Now is the time for change.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil is a multimedia journalist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, Canada. She holds a BA in journalism, with a minor in law and society from Montreal's Concordia University.
Laurence began reporting with The Eastern Door in the fall of 2020, after completing a fellowship with the Institute for Investigative Journalism, a national investigative organization.
Among many things, Laurence is passionate about investigative reporting, human rights, and environmental issues.