Festival shifts program after discovery of unmarked graves at B.C. residential school

Ottawa's Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival launches Tuesday, days after the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival scraps pre-recorded smudge ceremony for elder-led live Zoom event

Pandemic restrictions led organizers to host a virtual festival this summer. (Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival)

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

Ottawa's annual Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival is shifting its programming last minute, in the wake of a horrific reminder of Canada's past treatment of Indigenous people as the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

The festival, starting June 1, is a three-week long celebration of Indigenous resilience and heritage, packed with craft making workshops, cooking lessons, drumming and dance.

    With only days to plan, the festival's producer Trina Mather-Simard, says she knew she needed to find a way to provide some comfort to those who "were triggered by the events and grieving." 

    The only problem: the festival is online. Pandemic restrictions had led organizers to hold a virtual event with almost all of the content, workshops, performances and even the traditional welcoming ceremonies pre-recorded. 

    That meant there wasn't going to be a coming together of community and sharing of grief that would have happened on the festival grounds pre-pandemic.

    "Where those that needed support and guidance would be able to have that in-person connection." said Mather-Simard.

    Within the limitations of the virtual festival, organizers came up with an idea. It was important that the community heard from its respected elders. 

    They've scrapped the pre-recorded smudge ceremony for a live Zoom event led by Algonquin traditional elder Annie Smith St-Georges.

    Smith St-Georges says she will begin with a moment of silence in memory of 215 children and then share her thoughts about their tragic deaths.

    "It is a moment to think of the ones who have died through the residential schools," said the Algonquin elder, "and a time to heal."

    500,000 expected participants

    Smith St-Georges says she is hearing from many experiencing a range of emotions from sadness to anger, and after getting through a winter pandemic of loneliness and isolation they're finding it hard to cope.

    "I think the suffering is more harder for people, the survivors especially."

    The zoom ceremony will also include the burning of sacred medicines to cleanse and bring more positive energy.

    Organizers say they're expecting more than 500,000 online participants at the virtual festival, including 50,000 school children from across Canada.

    Mather-Simard said Canadians from all backgrounds are showing more interest in learning about Indigenous culture, and that there was a bump in registration after the news from Kamloops.

    Although the festival's content was put together before the discovery of the children's remains, some of its workshops deal with the dark chapter of residential school history, told by the survivors who lived through the horrors.

    "[We need] to recognize that's within Canada's history and to move forward on the path to reconciliation in any way that that we can," said Mather-Simard.

    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.

    Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

    A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

    Sign up now