WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Vivian Timmins says she was just four years old when she was torn from her family and forced to go to a residential school for the first time.
She would spend the next seven years at residential schools in Fort Albany and Thunder Bay, Ont. Sometimes, she says, they’d let her go home during the summers. She remembers dreading the moment the leaves started to change colour, signalling it’s time to go back.
“I’m the third generation going through that racist system,” Timmins told CBC News at the “Honouring Our Children” event for the Native Men’s Residence in Toronto.
When she finally got out for good years later, she says she realized the attempts to take her culture away from her didn’t stop there. She says when she tried to apply for a birth certificate, she discovered the Canadian government didn’t keep a record of her under her family’s surname, and had given her a non-Indigenous name, instead.
“It doesn’t mean I won’t forget; it doesn’t mean that I am over it. It means that I continue on each and every day the best way I can for my children and my grandchildren to break that legacy.”
For her, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a time to reflect and remember all the Indigenous children who didn’t make it home like she did. It’s also about raising the awareness — making sure Canadians know what she and thousands of other Indigenous children, families and communities endured, and that they’re still recovering from the trauma.
“People have to realize that they’re settlers and their visitors of this, of our, land,” said Timmins.
“And now we’re sharing it. So, we have to share the hope for the future too, that we will come together.”
Reconciliation through art
For Joseph Sagaj, an Anishinaabe artist and residential school survivor, having his art displayed across Nathan Philip Square’s iconic Toronto sign is an act of reconciliation.
Through his art, he says people have a chance to learn more about Indigenous values, languages and teachings not only through his eyes, but through the stories passed on to him, as well.
“To see this design displayed for the world to see, I think is quite vital and significant — not only for me, but for our community,” said Sagaj, a member of the Sturgeon Clan from the remote community of Neskantaga in northern Ontario.
“I’m very proud that the knowledge keepers and elders were there to help, and give me these stories to share.”
What cities, leaders are doing to mark the event
In Queen’s Park, Premier Doug Ford unveiled a garden dedicated to recognizing the continuing treaty relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. Ford called the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation a time to reflect on the dark legacy of residential schools.
The event is just one of a number gatherings across Ontario to mark the federal statutory holiday. Also known as Orange Shirt Day, the holiday was established to remember children who died while being forced to attend residential schools, those who survived, and the families and communities still affected by lasting trauma.
Municipalities across Ontario, such as Brampton and Toronto, are lowering their flags to half-mast. In Brampton, a candlelight vigil will begin at 5 p.m. and feature remarks by Chief Laforme and a keynote speech by the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould at 7 pm.
In downtown Toronto, many joined the City of Toronto and the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre for their sunrise ceremony and annual Indigenous Legacy Gathering, which celebrates Indigenous cultures, traditions and languages through workshops, presentations, stories, teachings, dance, film and music.
A sunrise ceremony was also held in Niagara Falls. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those who participated — he later spoke with residential school survivors and gave a speech at an event marking the day.
In Mississauga, Eagle Spirits of the Great Waters, a nonprofit founded and managed by local Indigenous people, will open a ceremony featuring dancing, drumming and smudging at the Small Arms Inspection Building from 6 to 10 p.m.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.