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Sask. marks National Indigenous Peoples Day with performances, residential school site memorial

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WATCH: Across Saskatchewan, people gathered both in person and virtually to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day – Jun 22, 2021

Dozens gathered in Wascana Park to mark National Indigenous Peoples Day, taking in performances, poems and prayer.

Organizer Kerry Bellegarde-Opoonechaw called it a much-needed day of “unification,” given the recent discovery of children’s remains at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“I thought what a lovely day that we could all get together, be together and hear stories,” Bellegarde-Opoonechaw said.

Bellegarde-Opoonechaw is a ’60s Scoop survivor and intergenerational residential school survivor, meaning her parents attended residential school.

Read more: British Columbia marks National Indigenous Peoples Day with calls for change

“I lost my parents a long time ago and I think it’s vital that our youth don’t lose their parents,” she said.

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“A lot of us are working hard to heal and to bring the truth to light so we can actually work on the problems.”

Some of the biggest problems stem from intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools, she said.

Prescott Demas believes National Indigenous Peoples Day is a day of recognition meant to acknowledge the issues Indigenous people face every day.

He says this year is even more significant now that people are starting to learn about the residential school system.

“I think it means a little more now as settler people are becoming more aware of all these issues that we as Indigenous people have talked about,” Demas said.

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But more work needs to be done, according to Demas, especially when it comes to the child welfare system.

Read more: Canmore hospital becomes ceremony site for National Indigenous Peoples Day

Demas says some of his kids were taken away by social services. He now cares for his young daughter.

“I have an army of advocates at my back so this girl is going to grow up with me, she’s going to stay with me,” he said.

“Maybe the child welfare system works to an extent, but if we’re using it as a weapon against Indigenous People then it really needs to change.”

Bellegarde-Opoonechaw, who recently helped get Regina’s Sir John A. Macdonald statue removed from Victoria Park, says change is only possible with allies and she recognizes the need to work with elected officials to get things done.

“We do have allies. We just have to reach out to them and we all have to work fairly,” she said.

‘Space for reflection’

Government House is taking active steps to help in the healing process for residential school survivors and their families.

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Last week, Government House officials raised a new tipi that will serve as a place for gathering, ceremony and learning.

Monday, Elders dedicated the site as the Saskatchewan Residential School Memorial.

Lt.-Gov. Russ Mirasty says it honours the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples.

“The beautiful setting provides a quiet and safe space for reflection, remembrance and healing,” Mirasty said.

“The memorial will honour the children, families and communities impacted by residential schools. It will also be a place of learning, sharing knowledge and stories.”

Premier Scott Moe says it’s important to acknowledge that not all of Canada’s history is positive and the broader population needs to recognize the challenges that Indigenous peoples face as a result of the residential school system.

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“Today is a step. It’s not the first step; it’s certainly not the last step, but it’s a very necessary step for us to continue with our path to healing,” Moe said.

The memorial is expected to be complete this fall.

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