Ann Heinrichs says she wouldn’t have her daughters if it weren’t for the intergenerational impacts that the Indian residential school system had on their birth families.

Her adopted daughters, Abby, 8, and Isabel, 5, are from the Nuu-chah-nulth and Sto:lo nations in B.C. Their grandparents and great-grandparents were sent to residential schools.

"When I see my daughter, I see her mother’s features. I can’t help but wonder what they experience knowing they don’t have her,” said Heinrichs, who is non-aboriginal.   

Heinrichs has joined a long-distance reconciliation walk from Stony Knoll, Saskatchewan, to Edmonton, Alberta. The group is heading for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final national event March 27 to 30.  

Heinrichs is walking with three other non-aboriginal people from Winnipeg’s Mennonite community.

'People will comment on how lucky our girls are to be raised by us, but how dare they, it cannot be assumed that way. … I felt really offended for the birth family.' - Ann Heinrichs

As Heinrichs’ daughters grow up into adulthood, she expects her girls will eventually feel the full impact of generational trauma brought about by residential schools.

“Guilt” is what she describes feeling.

“People will comment on how lucky our girls are to be raised by us, but how dare they, it cannot be assumed that way. I felt really offended for the birth family,” she said.

Because of this she feels she must be “accountable” to her adopted kids and educate herself about aboriginal peoples' experiences with colonialism.   

Ann Heinrichs

Ann Heinrichs says she wouldn’t have her daughters if it weren’t for the intergenerational impacts that the Indian residential school system had on their birth families. (Brandi Friesen Thorpe)

“How do we go about having integrity as our daughter grows up? We need to have integrity with her so she knows we tried to connect with other indigenous people, understanding her history and culture,” said Heinrichs .   

Her personal journey began when she would hear bits of survivor’s stories through her husband who was a pastor of a Mennonite Church in a now-defunct mining town next door to a Dené community in Northern B.C.      

In Sept. 2013, a Winnipeg chapter of the Student Christian Movement began planning a reconciliation walk. They were inspired by the Nishiyuuyouth walkers who trekked 1,600 km from northern Quebec to Ottawa during the height of the Idle No More movement last winter.  

“It just hit me when I heard of this walk,” said Heinrichs, who immediately wanted in.

“There was a 'yes' that resonated with me.”   

Originally, the group wanted to walk 1,300 km from Winnipeg to Edmonton but opted for a shorter, 550 km pilgrimage starting at Stoney Knoll, Sask.

That’s where Young Chipeewayan First Nation, Lutherans, and Mennonites signed a 2006 memorandum of understanding for all parties to respect treaties and "the sacred nature of covenants."

They agreed all groups would work towards peace, justice, and sufficiency. The walkers see their journey as an attempt to fulfill that agreement.  

The walkers will tick off 25 to 35 kilometres per day for three weeks starting March 7.

In the planning stages, Heinrichs said “naysayers” would give reasons why she didn’t need to trek, and she would often revisit the pros versus cons.  

'It’s not a walk of knowledge, it’s a walk of caring.' - Ann Heinrichs

“The ‘yes’ inside grew stronger,” said Heinrichs. “I do want to honour the experiences of my children’s birth families, their grandparents, grandparents who went to residential schools.”  

“As Christians we need to focus on setting things right ... there’s such a big wall, that needs to change, but [there are] only small changes so far.”

A residential school survivors group from Saskatoon is also honouring the walkers as they set out.  

Heinrichs said the three weeks will be the longest she has ever been away from her kids. Her husband, Steve Heinrichs, will be supporting the walkers from Winnipeg, along with a group of people fasting.     

On the walk she plans to absorb the indigenous geography, history and stories of the places they’ll be passing through.

Aside from learning, "it’s a walk of caring,” said Heinrichs, who hopes to make meaningful connections along the way.