When Theresa Sapp’s grandson asked her to come to a feast at the school on the Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan, she didn’t know there would be special guests.
When she arrived, Sapp met four non-aboriginal people walking from Saskatchewan to Edmonton in honour of residential school survivors like herself.
“I was surprised...they were Mennonites, they were helping out, that was good to hear,” said Sapp, 77, who attended Thunderchild Indian residential school at Delmas, Sask..
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The four Winnipeg walkers, officially kicked off their 550 km pilgrimage on March 8 at Stoney Knoll, Sask..
Eight years before, the Young Chipeewayan First Nation, Lutherans, and Mennonites gathered there to sign a memorandum of understanding, for all parties to respect treaties and "the sacred nature of covenants."
The group’s goal is to fulfill that promise, which includes reconciling the legacy of residential schools.
The walkers were welcomed to Little Pine by drummers and a grand-entry into the school gym where they feasted and heard survivors’ stories.
“They said it’s [our stories] are interesting. They felt sorry, they didn’t know all that was happening …I told them to have a good walk, and that I would see them in Edmonton,” said Sapp who will attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final national event, March 27 to 30.
“I was shocked, I didn’t mind, I gave them tobacco,” said Eldon Bear, 57. Like Sapp, he wasn't expecting non-aboriginal walkers.
“I’d like to see that from more non-natives, because there's a lot of people going through hard times,” said Bear who helped out at the event by smudging the flags for the grand entry and leading the round dance.
'It’s challenging to know these are things I haven't learned about through my years growing up and things aren't widely publicized...the history of Canada and indigenous peoples, it’s a hard history.'- Nathan Thorpe, a reconciliation walker
Bear, from Little Pine First Nation, attended residential schools from 1962 to 1973.
“It’s still in my head, that residential school stuff is still there, Onion Lake was the worst of it over there… after all the discipline, abuse, I started drinking ... I took lots of anger management for six months and that didn't help, went to jail for assault and got thrown in,” said Bear.
Bear said his recovery has been a long journey starting when he was 16, when he was re-introduced to Cree culture through his father’s spiritual guidance and ceremonies.
Sapp also experienced problems after leaving residential school, “I drank a lot,” she said. “They cut our hair off, when we talked Cree they could put something in our mouths to burn us, slap us, trying to kill the cultural spirit… It was a difficult life, a horrible life.”
Nathan Thorpe is a piano teacher from Winnipeg and one of the non-aboriginal walkers.
“It’s challenging to know these are things I haven't learned about through my years growing up and things aren't widely publicized...the history of Canada and indigenous peoples, it’s a hard history,” said Thorpe.
After the event, Sapp said she had a powerful dream.
'A lot of these older people we’re losing, a lot of them didn’t like the white man because of that [residential schools], but now, I know a lot of white people understand...no matter how bad we were treated, we are able to forgive.'- Theresa Sapp, residential school survivor
“There was this big room, there was chairs, people sitting there, like invisible, dead people, I guess they [survivors] were there, their spirits are there when we have these residential school workshops...a lot of them died without sharing anything, lots of them when they get their money they drink and do drugs, and some of them passed away like that. They hated talking about that, residential school.”
Sapp said many survivors who passed on didn’t have a chance to heal and forgive.
“A lot of these older people we’re losing, a lot of them didn’t like the white man because of that [residential schools], but now, I know a lot of white people understand...no matter how bad we were treated, we are able to forgive.”
The reconciliation walkers have continued their journey and are now passed the halfway point at Lloydminster.
“It’s going really well..obviously there's a physical challenge to our bodies... we get blisters, sore bodies,” said Thorpe. The walkers have been starting each day after 10 a.m., retiring by 5:30 p.m., and walking an average of 5 to 6 km per/hour.
They will arrive in Edmonton on Thursday to mark the first day of the last Truth and Reconciliation Commission National event.