Communities across New Brunswick decided to cancel Canada Day events after hundreds of unmarked graves were found on the sites of former residential schools across the country.
In place of the normal celebrations, communities held events focusing on acknowledging the country’s colonial past and educating residents about Indigenous history and oppression.
In Grand Bay-Westfield orange ribbons replaced red and white flags, as about 250 people gathered to hear about the history of the Wolastoqey people.
“If we simply cancelled the event then there would be a void there and there’s an opportunity here for people to come together to learn a little bit about truth and reconciliation and the history of the area,” said Grand Bay-Westfield mayor Brittany Merrifield.
Wolastoqiyik knowledge keeper Garry Gould spoke to the crowd for about 45 minutes about the deep ties of the Wolastoqey to the area around the river once called Wolastoq. Gould spoke about his own advocacy efforts which included attempts to have Indigenous rights recognized in the repatriated constitution in the 1980s.
Gould also spoke about the Sussex Vale Indian School, a precursor to the country’s national system of residential schools, where Indigenous children were placed into indentured servitude with loyalist settlers.
It’s a history he wants to see spoken about more.
“When you’ve got skeletons in your closet, you don’t like talking about it,” Gould said.
“We’ve got to pull the scab off the blemish, lance the boil, and be honest with one another and say here’s the real history, here’s what happened.”
Events were cancelled across the province. Cap-Pelé was one of the first municipalities in the Maritimes to cancel Canada Day celebrations. Fredericton, Saint John, Moncton, Bathurst, Oromocto to and Marysville quickly followed suit.
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Hundreds participated in healing walks in both Saint John and Fredericton. Both walks were Indigenous lead and held under the banner of Resiliency Day.
In Oromocto, a marigold display with 215 at its centre, the number of children discovered buried at the former Kamloops Residential Schools in British Columbia, was unvieled on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway on Wednesday.
Oromocto First Nation Chief Shelley Sabattis called the display a respectful gesture.
“Every time I see it, it’s going to give me the feeling of reflection, the feeling of grief,” Sabattis said.
Oromocto Mayor Robert Powell said he and council felt they needed to do something to recognize the grief and sadness being felt in Indigenous communities and beyond.
“They are our neighbours and they’re part of the town and we wanted to reach out to them and show our support,” he said.
Back in Grand Bay-Westfield Merrifield says the town will continue to work towards reconciliation, even after Thursday’s event. She says council has agreed to begin renaming some street names with proper Wolastoqiyik spellings and will begin education of public servants working for the town.
“This is just the first step of many,” Merrifield said.
Gould said he felt that renaming streets could fall into the category of tokenization if done in a vacuum and that the town needs to recognize that there is “unfinished business” when it comes to the treaties that are supposed to form the basis for the relationship between settlers and Indigenous people.
“It’s not about guilt,” Gould said. “It’s about knowing the truth.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access the 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.