Alberta marks first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with stories, ceremonies

An outpouring of stories from survivors of Alberta’s residential schools came Thursday, as the country marked the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The day is to honour the children who died in residential schools

Members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation marked Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with a walk at Morley, Alta., to honour victims of residential schools. (CBC)

WARNING: This article is about residential schools, a topic which may be triggering and distressing to those with dealing with past trauma. A national 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419.

An outpouring of stories from survivors of Alberta's residential schools came Thursday, as the country marked the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The day is meant to honour the children who died while forced to attend residential schools and those still affected by the schools today. 

The day has been commemorated in past years as Orange Shirt Day, which started in 2013 in honour of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, whose orange shirt was taken away from her on the first day of school.

That's story hits home for Stoney Nakoda First Nation Elder Valentina Fox, who survived 11 years at a residential school in Morley, located about 60 kilometres west of Calgary. 

Fox remembers being excited to wear her new outfit on her first day of school, only to have it taken away and doused with kerosene. 

Valentina Fox said she spent 11 years attending a residential school in Morley, Alta., and still carries many painful memories. (CBC)

"I wore my brand new moccasins, my brand new little dress, new jacket, and I was really excited to be going to residential school, and not realizing I wouldn't go home after that," she said. 

"My mother died that following January, and those moccasins were the last thing she made for me. I still think about those moccasins." 

Members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation community held a pipe ceremony and walk, which drew support from people in nearby areas. 

A memorial for the victims of residential schools was placed near the newly rebuilt McDougall Memorial United Church outside of Morley, Alta., west of Calgary. (CBC)

Eva Powder, a residential day school survivor, was one of the organizers of the ceremony. 

"Those children that did not make it home, we want to let them know that they are not forgotten and that we will make sure that they are being brought home and put into their resting place," she said. 

Siksika Nation, about 125 kilometres east of Calgary, held a ceremony Thursday, declaring it a time of healing and truth for the community. 

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Marches, drumming, and orange were part of ceremonies in Calgary, Siksika Nation, and Stoney Nakoda Nation. While solemn, the events also celebrated resilience and a public awakening about Indigenous people in Canada.

Chief Ouray Crowfoot says Siksika Nation is working to turn some of the old residential school sites into memorial areas. 

"You know, removing some of the pain that was caused by some of these schools and trying to turn them into an area of reflection, an area of healing," he said. 

At a ceremony marking the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation at Fort Calgary, there were speeches as well as drumming and singing performances. (CBC)

"A lot of the trauma, a lot of the addiction, a lot of the abuse that's happened in the last couple of decades, the last few decades is this intergenerational trauma ... there's a lot of abuse in these residential schools." 

For Floria Duck Chief, telling her story of survival is part of her healing journey. She survived seven years at residential school, and is also a survivor of sexual abuse. 

"Today I was looking forward to truth and reconciliation because we want people to understand more about how we survived residential school. I didn't lose my language. I didn't lose my way of prayer. I didn't lose my people," she said. 

"My people are still there. The only loss that I've come across is why do we bring up punishment about residential school? Why do we bring up sexual abuse? But then that's a part of everything that we've hidden. That's why I shared my story today." 

For Floria Duck Chief, telling her story of survival is part of her healing journey. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

In Calgary, several hundred people gathered at Fort Calgary for the city's event, where they listened to Phil Fontaine, the former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Fontaine said that the day is a chance for the country to reflect on its collective history of mistreatment of Indigenous people.

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"I can imagine that sometimes these stories are too difficult for people to imagine, that they actually happened. But they did. Many, many times," he said. 

Fontaine said there are many challenges still facing Indigenous people, but he's hopeful about the future, especially if Canada learns from its history and changes.

"So when we take this very special day for our people, this incredibly important moment for Canada, it gives us an opportunity to think deeply." 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from Terri Trembath, Colleen Underwood, Scott Dippel