Nova Scotia

Freedom march retraces steps of children at Shubenacadie residential school

Hundreds of people walked from the former Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia to the site of the old train station to honour all who attended the school and ones like it across Canada.

The event held Monday on National Indigenous Peoples Day honoured all who attended the school

Elmer Lewis, centre, helps lead a walk from the grounds of the former Shubenacadie residential school on June 21, 2021. The blue towers in the distance mark the site of the former school, which Lewis attended as a child. (Robert Short/CBC)

Tara Lewis watched as her father helped lead hundreds of people in a walk down the same road he'd walked as a child, heading away from the Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia.

It was a dream Lewis's father, Elmer Lewis, had carried for years. He had long wanted to hold a march and retrace the steps of children who would be released for the summer, ending at the former train station where they'd begin the journey back to their families and communities.

"I'm kind of speechless right now and I'm pretty in awe," Tara Lewis said Monday, looking around at the huge gathering for the freedom day march.

"It's great to see that his vision came true, for him … and for all the Shubenacadie residential school survivors."

Elmer Lewis (centre) with his daughters, Tara Lewis (right) and Charlotte Denny (left), helped lead the freedom walk he'd long dreamed of from the Shubenacadie residential school on June 21, 2021. (Robert Short/CBC)

Monday was also the 25th anniversary of National Indigenous Peoples Day, an opportunity for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage and diverse contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

The residential school in Shubenacadie operated between 1929 and 1967, affecting the lives of thousands of Indigenous children from across the Maritimes, as well as their families and descendants.

The building was demolished in 1986 and a factory now stands on the site by the Shubenacadie River on Indian School Road.

Lewis, who is from the Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton, said her father was always open about his experience at the school, but only shared his idea for a freedom day walk with her a few months ago.

She posted about the idea on Facebook, and got a lot of responses from the community. The event took shape with help from elders and community members.

Speaking to the crowd Monday, Elmer Lewis recalled how some children didn't get to go home between school years, including himself.

"I managed to survive," he said.

Alan Knockwood was the third child in his family to attend the Shubenacadie school, which he did for about four years before leaving in 1963.

Alan Knockwood walked the route along Indian School Road he'd last taken as a child in the 1960s. (CBC)

He said he left at the end of the school year when he was 12, thanks to his grandfather who "stole" him out of the Truro hospital. Knockwood said he had been admitted with acute appendicitis and nearly died.

When Knockwood's grandfather carried him out, the nurses turned their backs, he said. That way, when the RCMP called to check on him the next day, the nurses were able to shrug and say they didn't know where he was, said Knockwood.

The nurses "didn't want me to go back [to the residential school] either," said Knockwood. "It was a pretty horrible time."

While the day was full of healing for many, Tara Lewis said there was also sadness. She couldn't help but think about the years her father spent in the residential school without his family, and the children who died there.

Dorothy Denny (right) and her grandson, Cason Paul (centre), and her great granddaughter Karalee Denny, of Eskasoni First Nation took part in the Shubenacadie freedom walk on June 21. (Robert Short/CBC)

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation lists the names of 16 children who died while at the school, and community members have said they fear children were buried at the site. 

The freedom day march was held just weeks after the discovery of an unmarked burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Preliminary findings suggest it contains the remains of 215 children, according to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

"Today is to honour those families, and we're here praying and thinking of them," Lewis said.

Lewis said she hopes to make the walk a yearly event as a way to honour her father and all those who attended residential schools.

With files from Robert Short