Vigil held in Mississauga to mourn Indigenous children discovered at residential schools
Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents attended vigil to 'take back narrative' after pastor's remarks
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The Indigenous community and non-Indigenous allies held a vigil in Mississauga on Sunday to remember the Indigenous children found in unmarked graves across residential schools in Canada.
Crowds of people clad in orange shirts attended to mourn the 215 children from the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation believed to be buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia and the 751 children from the Cowessess First Nation buried at the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
The discoveries of the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children have sent a shock wave across the country.
The Mississauga vigil outside the Erin Meadows Branch Library was not only to remember the children but also to "take back the narrative," organizer Mskwaasin Agnew said, after a pastor at the Church of the Merciful Redeemer Parish made remarks in his sermon on June 20.
Monsignor Owen Keenen referenced the "good done" by the Roman Catholic Church in residential schools, adding that some might go so far as to even thank it. Keenen has since resigned from his role and was placed on an indefinite leave of absence.
"It's our story to tell," Agnew said during the vigil. "I'd like to take the opportunity to reclaim the narrative of what happened at residential schools."
Agnew is Cree and Dene and a member of the Salt River First Nation. Her grandfather is a survivor of a residential school in Fort Smith, NWT.
"One of the things he [Keenan] said is he's going to start listening to Indigenous people," Agnew told the CBC. "My response to the pastor is Indigenous people have been screaming and shouting about residential schools for decades now, you've had lots of time to listen."
Peaceful vigil also meant to educate
The peaceful demonstration, in addition to mourning the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children, was to educate participants about residential schools and the lasting impact on the country and its people.
"I believe the legacy of his [Keenan] message remains here," Agnew said, speaking to a crowd outside the library, across the street from the parish.
Agnew noted while performing Indigenous ceremonies — which included traditional drumming, singing, offering tobacco, praying, and various other traditions — that these activities and rituals were at one point illegal in Canada.
"There was a time where we had to fight for these rights," she said.
"We hope with more education, people will come to realize the truth about what happened in residential schools," Agnew added.
Agnew had to reclaim her Indigenous heritage and culture as a result of residential schools, she said. Today she organizes and educates people, remaining hopeful that they will learn and change.
And that's what she was doing at the vigil.
A community organization called Save Peel co-organized the event with Agnew. Romana Siddiqui is a member, and a community advocate.
Non-Indigenous community support growing
She said the non-Indigenous community was there to support the Indigenous community as allies, and that the pastor's comments were "very upsetting and painful."
Jane Anne Gibson, an Indigenous teacher in Peel, also attended and was happy to see the support from the non-Indigenous community.
"To see the people here to support us, to be allies, to honour the children, it feels really good," she said.
Gibson noted many people across the country are "just learning the truth of what happened at Canada's residential schools," saying it's a huge learning curve for those who don't know.
"Indigenous people have known for a long time," she said. "It's not history, it's not something that happened a long time ago, it's something that happened over a long time and continued happening right up until almost the present day."
The last residential school in Canada closed in 1997.
"That's why we're here to say we honour the children, and bring our children home, we want them home, we want them identified, we want them all found," Gibson said.
Speaking to the crowd of vigil attendees, Agnew said every former residential school in Canada must be investigated.
"There were 197 schools," she said. "So you can imagine what the numbers are going to be like when we're done our investigations."
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
With files from Jessica Cheung and Samantha Beattie