In their own words: Indigenous people in Toronto on what reconciliation means to them

Indigenous people are gathering across the GTA for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to remember the children who died after being forced into church-run and government-funded residential schools. It's also meant to honour those who survived and made it home, and the families and communities still affected by the lasting trauma.

Municipalities, school boards and legislatures observe National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Vivian Timmins (left), Steve Teekens (middle) and Joseph Sagaj are three Indigenous people in Toronto, marking the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in their own ways. (CBC Toronto)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Vivian Timmins says she was just four years old when she was torn from her family and forced to go to a residential school for the first time.

She would spend the next seven years at residential schools in Fort Albany and Thunder Bay, Ont. Sometimes, she says, they'd let her go home during the summers. She remembers dreading the moment the leaves started to change colour, signalling it was time to go back.

"I'm the third generation going through that racist system," Timmins told CBC News at the "Honouring Our Children" event for the Native Men's Residence in Toronto. 

Timmins was just one of the more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who were forced to attend church-run, government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997. Estimates of how many children died while at those schools vary, but experts agree that number is in the thousands. Based on a survey of CBC coverage last year, searches of at least nine locations have so far found more than 1,300 unmarked burials 

When Timmins finally got out of the system for good years later, she says she realized the attempts to take her culture away from her didn't stop there. She says when she tried to apply for a birth certificate, she discovered the Canadian government didn't keep a record of her under her family's surname, and had given her a non-Indigenous name, instead.

"It doesn't mean I won't forget; it doesn't mean that I am over it. It means that I continue on each and every day the best way I can for my children and my grandchildren to break that legacy." 

For her, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day, is a time to reflect and remember all the Indigenous children who didn't make it home like she did. It's also about raising the awareness — making sure Canadians know what she and thousands of other Indigenous children, families and communities endured, and that they're still recovering from the trauma.

"People have to realize that they're settlers and their visitors of this, of our, land," said Timmins.

"And now we're sharing it. So, we have to share the hope for the future too, that we will come together."

A mark of resilience

Steve Teekens is a grandchild of residential school survivors and a child of someone who survived the Sixties Scoop, which saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from their families, placed in foster homes, and eventually adopted out to white families across North America from the late 1950s to the 1980s. 

He says the day is also a time for many Indigenous people to talk about their resilience.

"We're still here. We're strong people," said Teekens, the executive director of Native Men's Residence, a Toronto-based program that helps Indigenous men experiencing homelessness get back on their feet using what it calls an "Indigenous cultural-based approach filled with respect and spirit." 

"I'm very proud to say that a lot of the unjust policies and laws the federal government had to try to eradicate Indigenous culture failed miserably."

Getting more people to learn more about these events and Indigenous history is one of 94 Calls to Action put forth by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in 2015. 

"What I've heard a lot of people say is before we can actually achieve reconciliation, we need people to understand what the truth is," said Teekens.

Reconciliation through art

For Joseph Sagaj, an Anishinaabe artist and residential school survivor, having his art displayed across Nathan Philip Square's iconic Toronto sign is an act of reconciliation.

Through his art, he says people have a chance to learn more about Indigenous values, languages and teachings not only through his eyes, but through the stories passed on to him, as well.

"To see this design displayed for the world to see, I think is quite vital and significant — not only for me, but for our community," said Sagaj, a member of the Sturgeon Clan from the remote community of Neskantaga in northern Ontario.

"I'm very proud that the knowledge keepers and elders were there to help, and give me these stories to share." 

Joseph Sagaj's latest art installation, Rekindle, is featured on the Toronto sign in Nathan Phillips Square. It presents Indigenous syllabics, a poem and various renderings of Indigenous traditions, heritage and world view. (Chris Mulligan/CBC)

In downtown Toronto, many joined the City of Toronto and the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre for their annual Indigenous Legacy Gathering, which celebrates Indigenous cultures, traditions and languages through workshops, presentations, stories, teachings, dance, film and music. 

Dozens of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gathered at dawn around a sacred fire outside city hall for a sunrise ceremony. 

Elders like Pauline Shirt sang songs, drummed and shared stories of their experiences. Shirt says she was in a residential school for nine years before she got kicked out and was told she didn't belong.

"I've always maintained my whole culture and my whole way of being," said Shirt, who conducted the sunrise ceremony. "I'm very strong in that. And I've passed it on to my children."

Shirt is a founder of the Kapapamahchakwew – Wandering Spirit School in Toronto, created in 1977.

"It's because of my mother's strength that we're all here learning our culture today," said Deanna Sheridan, Shirt's daughter, who helped her conduct the ceremony.

Indigenous Elder Pauline Shirt, middle left, says she was asked to conduct the sunrise ceremony event for the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre's Indigenous Legacy Gathering event. Her daughter Deanna Sheridan, left, was her helper. The sacred fire can be seen in the background. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

The day's meaning is different for everyone, Shirt says. For her, it's a time to acknowledge reconciliation is ongoing, but also to gather and to celebrate through things like work, food, prayer and dance. 

For Sheridan, it's a time for prayer and healing.

"These stories need to be heard and these stories need to be told, for the healing of everybody involved," she said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at


Vanessa Balintec is a reporter for CBC Toronto who likes writing stories about labour, equity and community. She previously worked for stations in New Brunswick and Kitchener-Waterloo. You can reach her at and on Twitter at @vanessabalintec.

With files from The Canadian Press, Ryan Patrick Jones, Chris Mulligan and Lorenda Reddekopp