Governor General Mary May Simon had some very personal reflections Wednesday on the eve of Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
As the daughter of a white father and Inuk mother, May Simon said in a statement that she was not allowed to attend a residential school.
She stayed behind and was home-schooled while other children were ripped away from their homes, separated from their families and sent to residential schools where they were not allowed to speak an Indigenous language or honour their culture.
May Simon, who was born in an Inuit village in northern Quebec, recalled visiting families where the absence of children was a “palpable void.”
“I was a stand-in, a well-loved substitute, for mothers and fathers who desperately missed their children,” she said.
“We all felt it. The sorrow of missing a part of our community.”
Several residential school survivors told their stories at a ceremony Wednesday night on Parliament Hill ahead of Thursday’s inaugural Truth and Reconciliation Day.
The outdoor ceremony took place near the Centennial Flame, where mounds of stuffed toys and pairs of children’s shoes have been left in honour of the children who never returned from residential schools.
The Peace Tower was illuminated in orange and the survivor flag was raised at half-mast.
Celine Thusky told of being torn from her family at seven years of age, of watching fellow students being physically and sexually abused at school and having no one to comfort her.
Inuk elder Levinia Brown said, “as children attending residential schools, many did not hear I love you and we were made to feel that we were not good enough.” They saw some of their fellow students die “and we were left as children to process our grief alone.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauded the courage of survivors and acknowledged that it cannot be easy for them to tell their stories.
Canada is seen as a peace-loving place that respects the rights of people, but it is also a country that has made “huge and terrible mistakes,” Trudeau said.
“Every people are good at telling stories of how great we are, how we were heroic in this moment or there were brave leaders in other moments,” he told the small crowd gathered for the ceremony.
“It’s harder to reflect on the truth of the mistakes, of the evil that we did in the past but that’s what this day, this day of truth and reconciliation, must be.”
Reconciliation, Trudeau said, doesn’t mean just looking back and understanding the mistakes made in the past but acknowledging that Canada is, even now, living with the legacy of those mistakes in the form of injustice, inequality and systemic racism.
Truth and Reconciliation Day is not just for Indigenous people, he added.
“And all of you as you go about your daily lives, take a moment to listen to the stories of a survivor, to an Indigenous elder who shares their perspective, their experiences in this country,” he said.
“And know that that story, their story, is your story as well. And until we understand as a country that each one of us’s story is all of our stories, there can be no truth, there can be no reconciliation.”
Truth and Reconciliation Day is intended to honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, 140 of which operated across the country from 1831 to 1998.
Some 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the church-run schools, where many suffered physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and neglect. More than 4,000 are believed to have died.
“The legacy of colonization has had devastating repercussions for Indigenous peoples, including the loss of language, culture and heritage. This pain has been felt from generation to generation, and it continues today,” May Simon said in her statement.
“These are uncomfortable truths, and often hard to accept. But the truth also unites us as a nation, brings us together to dispel anger and despair, and embrace justice, harmony and trust instead.”
In June, Parliament fast-tracked a bill making Sept. 30 a statutory annual holiday for federal workers.
The bill was passed shortly after the tragic discovery of what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Since then, unmarked graves have been discovered at several other former residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, while other former school sites are still being explored with ground-penetrating radar.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
–With files from Hina Alam