Francis Pierre stands tall and proud every time he sings.
Pierre, a member of the Katzie First Nation, feels strength singing because he is able to acknowledge residential school survivors, and give them a voice and the power to share what they went through.
“I do this because I want to give everything I can to empower them to let them know that they are not alone. What they went through was not OK,” said the 33-year-old while waiting for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation ceremony to start in Maple Ridge Friday morning, Sept. 30.
Pierre was getting ready to lead a procession of elders, community members, and dignitaries to the bandstand, to mark a dark chapter in the nation’s story and the hope for truth and reconciliation.
His late grandmother attended a residential school, he said. However, she never got to express herself about what she went through at the residential school she attended.
The only thing Pierre learned about her experience was when she was taken away from her parents – about how she just watched them get smaller and smaller through the car window as she was taken away.
“That’s the only thing I know from her residential school days,” he said. Everything else, he said, she took to her grave.
Now he feels empowered that he is standing up for his ancestors who never returned home and the children who never returned home.
Pierre is hoping by sharing stories that his nieces and nephews will learn everything that happened at residential schools.
His mother, Katzie First Nation elder Coleen Pierre, who helped organize the gathering in Memorial Peace Park, said it was heartwarming to see so many people in the park to mark the day.
“One of my mottoes is communication is the key, and it’s all about awareness,” she said, adding that the Truth and Reconciliation ceremony is not only about recognizing a dark moment in history of the first people’s of the country, but it is also about uplifting peoples’ spirits through song.
And, coming to an understanding of what residential school survivors went through.
“The best thing we can do is continue on to support and to guide,” she said.
Hundreds of people packed the park to hear the story tellers, watch the dancers, and participate in various activities that were planned for the day.
The official opening ceremony took place just after 10 a.m. with an official welcome by the Katzie First Nation and a traditional blessing by Katzie drummers.
Throughout the day there were guest speakers including Elder Sunni Hill, Rayette Marsden, and Megan Healy will be sharing stories, there will be a Sasquatch dancer and a jingle dancer.
People could make their own orange T-shirt making table with stencils designed by local artist Peter Gong.
Free bannock was handed out, along with free coffee and iced tea.
There were craft stations for children and a painting that anybody could take part in creating that will be put up in PLEA offices across the province.
Orange shirts were worn by almost everybody who attended the event to commemorate the day – inspired by the story of former residential school student Phyllis Webstad’s first day at residential school when she was only six-years-old and a new orange shirt bought by her grandmother was taken away from her.
Residential schools for Indigenous children came into existence in the 17th century and some were still in existence in the late 1990’s. The Government of Canada estimates that around 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools where a system was, “imposed on Indigenous peoples as part of a broad set of assimilation efforts to destroy their rich cultures and identities and to suppress their histories”.
Mental health supports are available for former residential school students at 1-866-925-4419 for emotional crisis referral services and information on other health supports from the Government of Canada.
Indigenous peoples across Canada can also go to The Hope for Wellness Help Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for counselling and crisis intervention.
Call the toll-free Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or connect to the online chat.
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