Hundreds gathered on Tuesday night in downtown Guelph to honour the 215 Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The front steps of the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate served as the location for the ceremony to reflect the Catholic church’s involvement in the residential school system.
The crowd of all ages, wearing masks and trying their best to social distance, stood at the corner of Macdonell and Wyndham streets.
Those who spoke during the ceremony shared their own experiences, whether as a survivor of residential schools or the Sixties Scoop, or of the intergenerational trauma they face.
Cody Purcell, from Matachewan First Nation, said it took him 25 years to find his family because they were taken away.
“My father was forcibly apprehended at a young age,” he told the mourners, adding that he recently took a trip to Spanish, Ont., where several residential schools operated.
“Walking what was formerly known as St. Joseph’s School For Girls — the residential school that took my grandmother away from our family and walking the grounds where St. Peter’s was — the residential school that took my great uncle away and took several of my cousins away. That’s one of the reasons why it took so long to meet my family.”
He asked those gathered to reflect on his experience.
“We are gathered here for 215 Indigenous children that were found in a mass grave. If that does not make you feel uncomfortable, why are you here?” Purcell said. “Those are somebody’s ancestors. Those are 215 Indigenous children that were not allowed to grow and flourish in this world.”
Purcell, along with others who spoke, called on everyone to familiarize themselves with the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and demanded that the Trudeau government implement them.
Included in the report were six recommendations specifically in regards to missing children and burial information.
They also demanded that every former residential school be searched for other unmarked burial sites.
“Nobody will take responsibility. Nobody feels obliged to do anything,” said elder Maryanne Cheesequay, who also spoke during the vigil.
The ceremony was organized by young Indigenous leaders in Guelph: Xicotencatl Maher, Hannah Geauvreau-Turner and Desiree Fekete.
Geauvreau-Turner, whose grandmother was sent to a residential school in northern Ontario, said she felt everyone who gathered was united.
“Although it was very emotional, I’m glad to see it,” she said. “The happiest note on this is that we made it past 215 pairs of shoes for the children, so that is the most important thing.”
Those shoes were placed on the steps and front lawn of the basilica. Geauvreau-Turner said they will be eventually be donated to children in need.
She also encouraged people to support the We Matter campaign, an Indigenous youth-led organization dedicated to supporting Indigenous youth.
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access a 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419