Kahnawake community gives residential school survivors something they never had as kids
Birthdays were not usually celebrated, but one survivor remembers a nun giving her a turnip as a gift
Kakaionstha Deer never had a birthday party as a kid.
"Because when we were in residential school, there were no birthday parties," Deer said.
On Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, about 100 members of the Kahnawake community gathered for a music-filled ceremony to celebrate the birthdays of all the children who were forced to attend residential schools.
While honouring the children who didn't survive residential school, Curran Katsi'sorókwas Jacobs said the ceremony was also a way to show survivors "we're really grateful you've come home."
"Today we are celebrating you and all the birthdays you may not have had. Today is yours."
There were prepared speeches, gifts and birthday cake. Jacobs helped organize the special day.
"You know we talk so much about their identity being taken away from them culturally, but even things like getting to use their own names — even knowing when their birthdays were and celebrating — for some, that experience didn't happen," she said.
It's been a difficult year with the unmarked graves found at residential school sites across Canada, she said.
Raising awareness about the past
Organizers in Kahnawake, located southwest of Montreal, wanted to keep the day emotionally light despite the sombre story behind it, all while raising awareness about residential schools.
Deer said the Canadian people need to know their history. She said they have to learn about who they are, who their ancestors were and what happened with the Indigenous people — starting with the first European settlers who landed here.
As for her own experience in residential schools, she said the kids worked on a farm and ate what they produced. Most of the time, that's all they ate. She recalled one birthday where she was actually given a gift.
"I had gone to the barn and someone said, 'oh it's your birthday' and the nun gave me a turnip and I shared it with all my friends and that was my gift," she said.
Father struggled to love, chief says
Chief Harry Angus Skahionhati Rice said many kids in residential schools didn't even know when their birthday was.
Now, he said, the goal is to build awareness about residential schools and why "every child matters."
Rice's father survived residential school, and "there was something taken away from him as a child. Children need to be loved."
He said his father cared deeply for his family, but that lack of love and compassion he experienced as a child affected his parenting and relationship with his wife.
"I know he loved us. I know deep down in his heart he did," said Rice. "I believe he wanted to love us more, but he didn't know how."
Rice's father passed away more than 20 years ago, but it's only now that Rice is beginning to realize the lasting impact residential school had on his family growing up.
It's important that Canadians do their research to better understand that traumatic history, he said.
"We didn't do this to ourselves," said Rice. "This was forced on us by the federal Canadian government. It's a crying shame."
Based on a report by Chloe Renaldi