'I want to honour them': Hamilton community gathers to remember children impacted by residential schools

Community members gathered in Gage Park in Hamilton to mark the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

'When we come together... we are medicine for one another,' said Elder Renee Thomas-Hill

A woman in an orange 'Every Child Matters' sweater on top of a ribbon dress sings at a microphone, with a traditional 'shaker'.
Tiffany Silversmith, 22, began the day's program at Gage Park by singing Sky World by Theresa Bear Fox, in the Cayuga language. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

Gage Park in Hamilton slowly filled with orange shirts on Friday morning, as community members began to gather for the opening of an event to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The day began with a song in the Cayuga language, sung by Tiffany Silversmith, 22, an Onondaga Haudenosaunee youth who works with the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre (HRIC).

The organization hosted the event, which spanned Thursday to Saturday but revolved around Friday. Last year, Sept. 30 was made a federal statutory holiday in order 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.

Before singing Friday morning, Silversmith gave a thanksgiving address in the Cayuga language and in English. 

"We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other, and all living things," she said.

The crowd that started to form at the park were from all walks of life, including young children dressed in orange shirts and ribbon skirts. 

An older woman smiles at the camera. Beside her, an older man is focused on a task. Both are Indigenous.
Grandmother Renee Thomas-Hill, pictured with Elder Neil Monague, said all the orange shirts reminds her of a fire. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

Cayuga Elder Renee Thomas-Hill said on this particular day, children are at the forefront of her mind — those of today, and the children who were hurt or killed by the residential school system. 

"Those children came to bring truth of what has been happening, so I want to honour them," she said, speaking about the children who died.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates, based on death records, at least 4,100 children died at residential schools across Canada, and that many were likely buried in unmarked and untended graves.

"There's a prophecy that the children will lead to truth. And that's what they did. They led us to truth," said Thomas-Hill. 

Remarking on the colour filling up the space, she said: "There's so much orange, it almost represents a fire."

A far away photo of people in orange shirts, white tents, and the Niagara Escarpment.
People begin to arrive Friday morning at Gage Park, where there would also be speeches from residential school survivors, poetry, music and drumming later in the day. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

Despite the sombre focus of the day, there was a strong sense of community and togetherness at Gage Park, Thomas-Hill said. 

"When we come together like this, we are medicine for one another," she added.

As for the path to reconciliation, Jodi Vander Heide-Buswa, who attended the day with some friends and family, said it requires "rebuilding relationships based on mutual respect."

Thomas-Hill said it was especially important for non-Indigenous community members to reflect on reconciliation on this day and beyond. 

A group of people pose for a photo in orange sweaters and shirts, as well as ribbon dresses.
Jodi Vander Heide-Buswa, second from left, said reconciliation to her means "rebuilding relationships based on mutual respect." (Cara Nickerson/CBC Hamilton)

Thomas-Hill's comments echoed those of Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who said Friday in Ottawa that the day was for Canadians to reflect on the country's history and treatment of Indigenous people — and commit to do better for the rest of the year.

"This important work of reconciliation is not a one-day affair. As we say, it will take us several generations," he said at a national ceremony Friday afternoon.

Back in Hamilton, events continue through the weekend, with drumming expected Friday evening and the HRIC hosting a day geared to families Saturday, also at the park, featuring music, vendors and activities from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Cara Nickerson is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. She covers all topics, but has a special interest in reporting on social issues and community events. She previously freelanced for Hamilton Community News.

with files from Guy Quenneville, Darren Major