Hundreds of people from all walks of life gathered in front of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building on Thursday evening, but not for the normal Canada Day celebrations.
Thursday’s crowd gathered in a show of solidarity as part of a vigil to honour those who lost their lives at residential schools across the country, along with those who came home but were never the same.
So far, more than 1,100 unmarked graves have been found at sites of former residential schools across Canada, and experts say there are still many more waiting to be found.
Last week, Cowessess First Nation, located east of Regina, announced that using ground-penetrating radar, it had identified an estimated 751 unmarked graves in the community at the site of the now-demolished Marieval Indian Residential School.
“There’s many people here, including the First (Nations) People here and other Indigenous nations, individuals and families across the land who don’t have the equal distribution of justice and so today is an opportunity for us to take that step back and to recognize and respect the mourning nations across the land,” said Angela Mclean, one of the organizers of the vigil.
Starlene Saulteaux-Rockthunder and nearly a hundred of her friends and family members walked from the former Muscowequan Residential School to the legislature building in the more than 30 C heat over the duration of two days.
On Friday, they will be walking to where the former residential school in Lebret was.
The idea came from her daughter, Avayah-May, while they were watching a documentary called We Were Children, which takes a look at accounts from residential school survivors.
“She couldn’t believe that all those children were going through that abuse and all that neglect and so what really inspired that was she looked at me and started crying and said mom don’t send me to residential school,” Saulteaux-Rockthunder said.
She goes on to say the experience made her cry as well.
“It’s the children that were hurt so many years ago and it’s the children that are going to heal us and start that journey for us and with all the reconciliation that’s going on, we know that forgiveness is there,” said Dallas Saulteaux, Starlene’s mother.
Yvonne Fourhorns, 71, was also present at the vigil.
She was there with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and is a residential school survivor.
“Spent 10 years of my life there. There were six of us in the family and all six of us were taken from very awesome people. My mom and dad were very simple — all they knew was the Cree language. They didn’t know how to speak English,” Fronghorns said through teary eyes as she recalled her early-life experiences.
Fourhorns was only four years old when she had to go to residential school. She said one of her brothers never came home and her parents did not receive an answer from school officials as to what happened to him.
Now, she too is teaching the next generation of Indigenous children in her family about the atrocities committed against their people, a painful thing to talk about.
A group of young men in their early to mid-20s decided to do their part to commemorate the lost Indigenous lives by running and walking 40 km in the sweltering heat from the Piapot reserve to the legislature building on Canada Day.
It’s a feat they were able to achieve in just six hours as undeterred determination kept them going.
“We have a lot of relatives, family, that were in residential schools, so we basically did it for them and all the people that didn’t survive,” said Keegan Sangwais, one of the runners.
“We suffered today in this heat, walked and ran a long way, couldn’t imagine how our ancestors, our people felt, how they suffered,” said Dorrian Akapew, another member of the group.
The group adds they couldn’t have done it without the support of their family and community as they were right behind them cheering.