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Amid grief, B.C. residential school survivor seeks to bring joy to Indigenous families

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Lou-ann Neel, a residential school survivor in Victoria, has found a way to give back through the pain. She has collected shoes, toys, and other mementos left at makeshift memorials after the discovery of unmarked children's graves in Kamloops and redistributed to children in need – Jun 21, 2021

Like many across the country, the weeks following the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School have been a time of reflection for Lou-ann Neel, who is a residential school survivor.

“You start to rethink,” Neel said. “When I was there, did I notice any children go missing? It makes you question your whole childhood.”

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B.C. marks National Indigenous Peoples Day with calls for change – Jun 21, 2021

Following the discovery, Neel helped organize a vigil. Those in attendance came bearing gifts.

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“There ended up being exactly 215 pairs of shoes,” Neel said. “I was in awe.”

The question then became what to do with the shoes and other items.

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National Indigenous People Day: A time for reflection – Jun 21, 2021

“I asked every person after they placed it, ‘Would you mind if I made sure these got out to children who need them?'” Neel said.

Neel used her connections, reaching out to parents in the community, asking them to spread the word through social media. So far, more than 75 pairs of shoes have been given to Indigenous children in need, along with countless stuffed animals.

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

Neel performed a four-day cleansing ritual, brushing items with cedar and singing children’s songs.

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The remaining items were taken to Victoria’s St. Andrew’s Cathedral during a Sunday mass in the hopes of sparking difficult but necessary conversations.

Read more: ‘The children were dehumanized’: Former caretakers at B.C. residential school share their story

“I think that’s the start of really educating the public,” she said.

Notes, toys and shoes continue to accumulate on the steps of the B.C. legislature, where they will remain until at least Canada Day before being donated.

“They’re perfectly good toys and perfectly good shoes. We want them to go to good homes.”

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