Mohawk Council grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer punched her fist in the air as she stood in front of McGill University’s Roddick Gates in downtown Montreal on September 30.
“If you’re Indigenous, I want you to raise your fist,” said Sky-Deer to a sea of orange in front of the university. “I want you to speak so the ancestors and those children’s spirits can hear you.”
This year marked the second official year of the National Day that people are active in this,” said Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter for Truth and Reconciliation, which coincides with the annual Orange Shirt Day. The day serves to honour residential school survivors and remember the children who never came home.
The Native Women’s Shelter and Resilience Montreal organized Montreal’s downtown march collaboratively.
The day began at the George-Etienne Cartier monument in Jeanne-Mance park, where crowds gathered to listen to preliminary speeches, some sharing bannock before the march.
“I think it’s really important that people are active in this,” said Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter. “It’d be really great if subpoenas were being handed out, though… Who dug those graves? What we really need is accountability.”
Steve McComber shared with the crowds the ongoing effect that residential school systems have had on his community.
“I asked my auntie, ‘Why?’ Why her, my mother, and all my aunties didn’t speak Mohawk,” he said. “My auntie said to me, ‘Because papa didn’t want his girls to get hit, to get punished in school.’”
The march also saw people demand more from politicians that have continued to prop up systems that continue to harm Indigenous people across the country.
“When I listen to the prime minister (Justin Trudeau) say ‘truth and reconciliation,’ this is nice. It’s a beginning,” McComber explained.
“But without really being aware of the truth, how can you really reconcile?”
With the march happening only three days before the Quebec provincial election, attendees were keen to consider politicians’ attitudes towards truth and reconciliation. Politicians were notably absent at the beginning of the march.
“I only vote for the person who gives our land back,” said Nakuset.
Nakuset shared with The Eastern Door that she had received information suggesting that the Liberal Party of Canada was not planning to attend the march.
“The Liberal party isn’t going to show up because I didn’t invite them,” said Nakuset. “You wanna come, show up. You don’t need a freaking written invitation.
I don’t invite any politician, except for the grand chief, and I also invited chief Jessica Lazare. You can come if you want to come. I don’t write written invitations. This is not a soiree.”
Mohawk Council of Kahnawake chief Jessica Lazare also criticized the government’s inaction.
“There needs to be a genocide museum of the Americas,” she said. “So that it’s in your face. Because your oppression in your laws is in our face on a daily basis. We did a vigil for Joyce Echaquan. She wanted those principles which the (Francois) Legault government denies Indigenous people. When you deny something, you are part of the problem and the continuation of the genocidal project.”
Nakuset was also critical of the way in which political parties and non-Indigenous figures expected the day to be centred around themselves.
“Other parties are worried they’re going to be booed if they come. I don’t know what to tell you about that. I even had a police chief who was like, ‘I want to walk in the middle of the march in my uniform.’ It’s not going to freaking happen,” Nakuset explained.
“The representative for SAA (Secretariat aux affaires autochtones) wanted to know if there was a greeting party or something for her… I’m greeting all my speakers. You’re not speaking. Find a spot, listen.”
The march travelled south to Sherbrooke, walking along the main road and down to the former Macdonald Monument at Place du Canada.
On route, people were seen holding orange paper, students waved from McGill’s student residences, and folks in residential apartments swayed orange shirts from their windows in support.
Speeches continued about halfway through the route, where crowds huddled to listen to grand chief Sky-Deer’s address.
“After those first 215 were discovered last year, people started to become cognizant of what we always knew… Children being stolen from their homes, not being raised by their parents, not being shown love. They were punished, they were brutalized, they experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, violence,” she said.
“Can you imagine how many more Indigenous people there would be across this country if each of those children had a child, and they had a child?”
Across all speeches, the atrocities of the past were remembered, but there was also a turn to the future, as speakers shared the importance of actions like language revitalization.
“Our spirit is not broken. Our spirit is awakening,” Sky-Deer explained. “We are going to do everything in our power to reclaim our Indigenous languages, to reclaim and revitalize our culture because it’s still there. Our people are strong, and despite all the adversity and everything we’ve been through, we’re still here, and we’re gonna continue to fight… We know who our people are.”
Autumn Godwin, who is Nehithaw (Woodland Cree) from the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, attended the march with the Generational Warriors group, which focuses on the importance of truth in honouring the past.
“When I think of truth, what we know the truth is, is that our languages were forbidden,” Godwin explained.
“Our practices were forbidden, our families were abused. Those schools were designed to take the Indian out of the child, and we’re bringing the truth now. It is mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting having to prove that our lives matter.”
Godwin shared that, to her dismay, the day of the march was the same day as her daughter’s attestation day at school – meaning that students were being physically counted in the school for the purpose of determining grant funding.
“I see my daughter, I see her friends, she’s teaching her teachers that absolutely ridiculous.”
The day was heavy and while moments of hope were shared between attendees, the ongoing effects of the Canadian government’s actions weighed deeply on all those present.
“It’s very easy to be discouraged right now,” said Inuk singer Elisapie Isaac.
“I think we’re all emotionally drained. I’ve been speaking to friends who said, ‘you know, today I’m going to just take it easy. I have no energy.’ I say that’s okay too because we have people here who can lift us up when we need.”
The prevailing message of the day was a continuing need for justice.
“All those children died. They deserve justice. They’re looking at you all today for justice,” Lazare concluded.
“So don’t be silent. Put pressure on those politicians. Change the curriculum that’s in the schools. Read the TRC’s calls to action, and make sure every judge, every lawyer, every police officer, every teacher, every social worker, everyone, understands what Indigenous people’s human rights and self-determination mean. In our language, we say ‘skén:nen’ – we wish you peace.”