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Residential school tragedy hits home

Katzie and others in Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge mourn after children’s graves found
City of Pitt Meadows invited the public to a place of reflection at the Rising Spirit Eagle, beside the Katzie First Nation flag in Spirit Square. (News files)

The grim discovery of mass graves at residential schools across Canada sent waves of shock and grief across Canadian society in 2021, and hit home in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.

As the year came to a close, Maple Ridge man Dwight Ballantyne was working on a unique project to bring awareness of the residential school near his home reservation in Saskatchewan, and its victims.

Ballantyne is from the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, and has worked with First Nations young people through the Ballantyne Project. Now he’s involved with the Timber Bay Project.

B’yauling Toni, a non-Indigenous 21-year-old University of Saskatchewan student, undertook a solo snowshoe expedition over two weeks, in freezing temperatures from Saskatoon to Timber Bay. The goal was to generate public awareness for survivors of Timber Bay school, and their decades-long battle to be acknowledged as residential school survivors.

Ballantyne grew up near the school, and his family and community members are included on the list of thousands of survivors of this school. He is getting involved with the project by creating daily narrated videos for social media. He wants justice for his community.

“They’re not even recognized as residential school survivors,” he said. “People who went there faced trauma, abuse and sexual abuse the same as other residential schools.”

“It hits home for me, because this is where my family was going to school.”

After learning about the discovery of 215 children buried at a former residential school site in Kamloops in May, there were ceremonies of mourning and remembrance throughout June.

The Katzie First Nation gathered for the first time in 2021, as more than 100 people in orange shirts met at the reserve to commemorate the sad time.

“I’ve had an opportunity to connect with many of you, and our council felt it in our hearts to come together today as a community,” said Chief Grace George. “We know and understand that our strength comes to us in this way.”

“Coming together, sharing this time – and our prayer for tonight… we’re able to have some healing together as a community.”

READ ALSO: Katzie First Nation offers statement after residential school graves found

About 100 people also gathered in Memorial Peace Park in Maple Ridge in a ceremony of mourning and remembrance, with solemn singing and prayers.

There were memorials – like the shoes and flowers under the Katzie First Nation flag in Pitt Meadows’ Spirit Square, and 215 orange teddy bears on the fence at Eric Langton Elementary.

As terrible as the first finding was, weeks later another 751 unmarked graves were found at a residential school in Saskatchewan near the end of June, and another 182 unmarked, shallow graves were found at the former St. Eugene’s Mission School in the Kootenays. In July, the remains of another 160 Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves in Penelakut Island in B.C.

The sites were searched with ground-penetrating radar.

READ ALSO: 751 unmarked graves at Saskatchewan residential school: First Nation

“The Katzie First Nation is beyond words regarding the discovery unearthed in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc territory at the former Kamloops Residential School. We express our anguish as we process this horrific unearthing,” said a statement from the Katzie after the first mass grave was found.

“As the darkness of Canadian history is revealed, we grieve with all others. It is truly a time of mourning and we feel the collective heartache. This genocide will continue to unfold, as this is only one school out of an approximate 139 in Canada. We have a long road ahead,” the Katzie shared.

The federal government allotted $27 million to First Nations communities to find burial sites that are still hidden.

Ballantyne said getting recognition for the former students of the Timber Bay school could open the door for hundreds of other similar institutions, which are not being recognized by government as part of the residential school tragedy.

“I hope people see this, and get involved.”

READ ALSO: Discovery of unmarked graves selected as Canada’s news story of the year: CP poll

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Katzie First Nation performed a blanket ceremony after the discovery of children’s graves at the residential school site in Kamloops. (Special to The News)

Neil Corbett

About the Author: Neil Corbett

I have been a journalist for more than 30 years, the past decade with the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News.
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