Mi'kmaq, supporters hold vigil for 215 residential school children at Sir John A statue

About 80 P.E.I Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters gathered for a vigil at the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in downtown Charlottetown Monday morning after the remains of children were found in unmarked graves at a residential school site in British Columbia.

'It’s to honour them, to honour the life that they could have had, the life that they were denied'

Jingle dancers performed while others formed a circle around the shoes, which symbolized the children buried in the unmarked graves in British Columbia. (Jane Robertson/CBC)
  • BREAKING NEWS NOTE: Several hours after this story was published, and in light of the grim discovery in Kamloops, Charlottetown city councillors voted unanimously to have the Sir John A. Macdonald statue removed from its spot in downtown Charlottetown and put into storage until a decision can be made about its final fate. That story can be read here.

About 80 P.E.I Mi'kmaq and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters gathered in downtown Charlottetown Monday morning at a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald for a vigil after the remains of children were found in unmarked graves at residential school in British Columbia.

The property, outside a former residential school in Kamloops, contains the bodies of 215 children.

"I was angry. I wasn't shocked, but as I've been working with my elder through this, I realize I have to turn it into not about what happened: the genocide, the abuse. I need to make it about honouring the lives of these children. That's all I wanted to do. Honour the lives of these 215 children," said Lynn Bradley of the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ohsweken, Ont., one of the organizers of the event.

"It's not about what happened at the school, what led to their untimely death. It's to honour them, to honour the life that they could have had, the life that they were denied."

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced on Thursday that preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey had uncovered the remains.

The important thing is that the lives of the children be honoured, says Lynn Bradley. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

The announcement led to reactions of shock and horror across Canada on the weekend, though Indigenous leaders have said for decades that thousands of children died and were buried in unmarked graves while the schools were in operation. 

On Monday morning in Charlottetown, Mi'kmaw jingle dancers performed and there were prayers and speeches while others formed a circle around the statue of Canada's first prime minister, whose government introduced the schools in 1883 to remove children from their families and prevent them from growing up amid "savages," Macdonald was recorded as saying in the House of Commons.

Shoes played a major role in the Charlottetown vigil. 

Abegweit First Nation Chief Junior Gould announced a plan Sunday to honour the children of the Kamloops school with a display of 215 pairs of shoes outside the band's administration office on Monday at 2 p.m. Some of the shoes collected for that event were brought to the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Row for the morning vigil. 

Across P.E.I., flags are flying at half-mast in mourning for the children. Federal flags were also lowered across the country.

The P.E.I. flag flying at half-mast at the provincial courthouse. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

For almost a year, the Charlottetown John A. Macdonald statue has been a target for people upset about his history with Indigenous peoples, which included actions that worsened a state of near-starvation on the Prairies as newcomers hunted bison to near-extinction.

The statue has been repeatedly defaced with paint and other substances and was knocked over once.

Earlier this month, Charlottetown city council accepted a number of recommendations from the Island's First Nations communities on changes that should be made to the statue. They include the addition of an Indigenous figure on the bench occupied by Sir John A. Macdonald's figure, and new signage. 

Crisis line

  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

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With files from John Robertson, Danny Arsenault and Shane Hennessey