July 1 events to honour Indigenous children who died at residential schools

Since the Kamloops discovery, Albertans have created local events for July 1 to memorialize the children who died in Kamloops as well as residential school survivors.

'Our people need a way and a place to express how they're feeling'

Bears with orange ribbons were given to residential school survivors at a recent vigil held in Maskwacis, Alta. to honour the children who weren't able to return home from the Kamloops residential school. (CBC News)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Michelle Wells wanted to show her support for Indigenous people in Alberta affected by the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains adjacent to a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

So when she saw the national grassroots group Idle No More encouraging people to host alternative gatherings on July 1 to "honour all of the lives lost to the Canadian State," she started planning  an Edmonton event.

"Our people need a way and a place to express how they're feeling," said the Edmonton Cancel Canada Day event organizer.

"I think it's a good option to have right now." 

She said it's not about cancelling the national holiday celebrations, but about offering a ceremony to celebrate "us as a people."

Since the discovery in Kamloops, Albertans are planning local events for July 1 to memorialize the children. 

Bob Smallboy is a residential school survivor and initiated the Legacy Run 215 + Convoy event to honour the children who died and survivors of residential schools in Canada.

The convoy, being organized by several volunteers, will make its way from the Enoch Cree Nation to Ermineskin Cree Nation. Speakers, healing dances and a tipi village will be set up for people to "listen, heal and share stories in a social setting," according to the Facebook page.

"More graves are being discovered, more First Nations are being impacted as more sites are exposed," Smallboy said in a statement to CBC News.

"We hope to use this event to bring awareness and build bridges between Indigenous people and mainstream society." 

READ MORE | Read Bob Smallboy's full statement here

Municipal celebrations going ahead

Despite some wishing to cancel Canada Day celebrations this year, many municipalities in the Edmonton region — including the City of Edmonton — have told CBC News that Canada Day celebrations will be moving ahead.

Children’s shoes were left at the monument to Catholic nuns on the legislature grounds on Sunday, May 30, 2021. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Some of the municipalities, like the City of Leduc, are planning to honour the Indigenous lives lost to the residential school system at their Canada Day celebrations with a moment of silence, while the City of St. Albert is opting to postpone its annual firework celebrations.

St. Albert said last week it was cancelling its Canada Day fireworks in respect of people "who have experienced and continue to experience the effects of intergenerational trauma due to the residential school system."

The event usually takes place on Mission Hill, the site of the former Youville Residential School.

"It's not that we're cancelling Canada Day, we're just being respectful of the fact that shooting off celebratory fireworks right on top of potentially unmarked graves is in poor taste," said St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron in a video posted to her Instagram account on Saturday.

Three municipalities in B.C. have cancelled local Canada Day celebrations as many Indigenous communities continue to grieve.

Edmonton organizers of memorial events emphasized that this year on July 1, events should make an effort to recognize and educate on Canada's residential school system history. 

"I'm not trying to say don't celebrate. Of course, there's going to be a lot of people that want to celebrate," Wells said.

"But remember and show that they are acknowledging that these things did happen and there's only going to be more discoveries … There's a lot of misunderstanding on the topic of residential schools and what happened in Catholicism. We need to start at some point to address those issues in a way that is going to work for everybody."

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.