Cree plan candlelight vigils instead of Canada Day

Instead of the usual Canada Day events, the Chisasibi Youth Council is inviting community members to a candlelight vigil on the evening of June 30, with prayer and drum. They are also encouraging people to wear orange instead of red and white.

Chisasibi youth and Cree women's association among groups calling for cancellations

The Chisasibi Youth Council is organizing a candlelight vigil instead of Canada Day on June 30. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

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

For one youth council, cancelling Canada Day may be the best way for the youth of Chisasibi, Que., to both honour the Indigenous children whose remains were found in Kamloops, B.C. and to start difficult but important conversations locally about the legacy of residential schools.

Instead of the usual Canada Day events, the Chisasibi Youth Council is inviting community members to a candlelight vigil on the evening of June 30, with prayer and drumming. They are also encouraging people to wear orange instead of red and white.

"In our culture, when someone passes, we have proper burials. And to think about these children and their parents kind of hurts. I'm not sure if I'm using the right words, but we felt pain, we felt anger and we felt lost," said Chisasibi Youth Chief Steven Tapiatic. 


We felt pain. We felt anger and we felt lost.- Steven Tapiatic, Chisasibi Youth Chief

Tapiatic said that when news that remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., many of the members of the local youth council in Chisasibi were in their "own bubbles" and clearly struggling, but about two weeks ago an important and impromptu sharing circle took place.

'People felt anxiety'

"People felt anxiety when they thought about their children. A lot of members on my [youth] council have little children who are two, three, four or five years old and they couldn't imagine that happening to their children," said Tapiatic, adding the council members were confused.

"Religion is something big in our communities. We have churches, you know. They are supposed to be good people. They are supposed to help us," he said.

Steven Tapiatic is the Youth Chief of Chisasibi. He says young people have a deep need to know more about residential schools. (submitted by Steven Tapiatic)

Chisasibi is the largest of the Cree communities with a population of more than 5,000, located some 1,400 kilometres north of Montreal. Close to 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 35, according to Cree health board numbers.

Tapiatic added that many of Chisasibi's youth have a deep need to express their grief and to stand with their own parents, aunts, uncles and elders who are survivors themselves.

"We do talk to our elders, but [residential school] is something we try not to bring up because it brings up the negative side of their childhoods," he said.

On Monday, Cree leadership also hosted a live stream in Chisasibi to express solidarity with Indigenous families across Canada as more unmarked graves are located. Leaders also explained how they plan to start efforts to investigate the sites of two former residential schools on Fort George Island, located just a few kilometres from Chisasibi, where the community was located until 1981.  

Increasing numbers of people across Canada are calling for Canada Day to be cancelled after Victoria, B.C., decided last week to cancel its Canada Day programming following the discovery in Kamloops.

The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association is also inviting people in Cree communities to organize candlelight vigils at 2:15 p.m. on June 30.

Chisasibi Youth Chief Tapiatic says he hopes the conversations that are happening because of recent events encourage Cree youth to start a conversation in their own families.

"The youth have an interest in what happened in the residential schools. We have to know what happened to our people back then so we can be stronger emotionally, mentally and physically," he said.

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

The Cree health board operates the Wiichihiiwaauwin (Mental Health Helpline) at 1-833-632-4357. Support is available in Cree 24/7.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

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.