Over 10,000 people gathered in Victoria Park in London, Ont. to join the Turtle Island Healing Walk on Canada Day to honour the Indigenous children found in unmarked graves at former residential schools.
The turn out surpassed that of the estimated 10,000 who came out in support of the London Black Lives Matter rally last summer, with the crowd filling up Richmond Street from Central Avenue all the way to Oxford Street.
“We already knew the truth, and now that everyone else can see the truth, we need to stand together to create change,” said lead organizer Elyssa Rose, spirit name Little Thunder Woman, from Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point.
“It’s not about not loving Canada, it’s about understanding what Canada represents, and how we can make it great.”
The event kicked off just after 10 a.m. with several First Nations speakers and performances by First Nations drummers and a trio of jingle dress dancers. The day finished with a five kilometre walk around downtown London to honour the children lost.
Demonstrators held numbers to represent the estimated 1,148 unmarked graves that have recently been brought to light at former residential schools.
In late May, the remains of 215 children were discovered at the site of a former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C. An estimated 751 unmarked graves were additionally identified at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Cowessess, Sask. last week. Wednesday, 182 human remains were found in unmarked graves at the site of the St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in Cranbrook, B.C.
“Right now we need to pause, reflect, and be together, because we are hurting, our hearts are heavy,” Rose says.
The event was initially planned after the discovery in Kamloops, but grew after the bodies found in Cowessess and Cranbrook.
Mari Cornelius, 24, from the Oneida Nation of the Thames Turtle Clan, is the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of residential schools survivors.
She said she was at Thursday’s demonstration for her young nieces.
“We are here because it’s for them — we don’t want happened to happen to them.”
“Everyone is here and everyone is proud to be here, it’s not proud day to be Canadian, but we are proud to be Indigenous,” she says.
“If it was not for those schools, I would be able to talk my language fluently, and I would not have to hide who I am as a person.”
Mari’s mother, Mary Cornelius was also at the demonstration and said there needs to be justice.
“Our residential children were ripped from their language and tradition, they were beaten, tortured, raped, they were killed because of their language and speaking their language,” Cornelius said.
“Someone needs to pay for this, someone needs to account for all of these dead bodies being found.”
“It’s really tearful when you hear about all these babies and it breaks your heart because when we see our babies because we have to live for our children.”
In December a delegation of Indigenous leaders will visit the Vatican to press for a papal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
Identifying unmarked graves at former residential schools was one of the calls to action the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) listed.
Some 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forcibly sent to residential schools, where many suffered abuse and even death.
The TRC reports 139 residential schools operated in Canada between 1828 and 1996, 17 of which were in Ontario.
The TRC identified 3,200 deaths as part of its investigation, but Indigenous groups across Canada have long insisted that number is much higher. This number doses not account for the 1,148 unmarked graves recently discovered.
Children at residential schools were the victim of both physical and sexual abuse by staff, were malnourished or underfed, and lived in poor housing conditions that threatened their safety, the TRC reports.
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.
With files from Jacquelyn LeBel and Maan Alhmidi The Canadian Press