Cultural gathering at Nathan Phillips Square offers chance to learn about residential schools

A three-day cultural gathering to honour residential school survivors and their families began Tuesday at Nathan Phillips Square outside Toronto City Hall.

Event part of Indian Residential Schools Survivors Legacy Project taking shape near Toronto City Hall

More than 20 teepees that are set up at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto will host programming and drop-in workshops Oct. 9-11. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

A three-day cultural gathering to honour residential school survivors and their families began Tuesday at Nathan Phillips Square outside Toronto City Hall.

The Indian Residential Schools Survivors Legacy Celebration aims to spread awareness about its namesake project, a collaboration between Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, the Province of Ontario and the City of Toronto, which will consist of an Indigenous healing garden at Nathan Phillips Square centred around a sculpture.

"Today is about restoration of our identities all of our identities and that's why it's a reaffirmation of who we are," said Andrea Chrisjohns, board designate for Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre.

Andrea Chrisjohns, board designate for Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, said the IRSS Legacy Celebration is about reaffirmation of identity. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

"This is an opportunity to demonstrate that everything and anything is possible and it doesn't always have to be about hurt."

Chrisjohn is from the Oneida Nation and is a member of the bear clan.

Opportunity to learn

The day began with a sunrise ceremony followed by a grand entry dance around the square. More than 20 painted teepees set up around the square will offer educational programming and drop-in workshops throughout each day.

"This is an opportunity for Torontonians to learn about residential schools under the colonial history of Canada," said residential school survivor Michael Cheena.

Cheena, who attended Bishop Horden residential school in Moose Factory, Ont., and Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, over a period of eight years, was invited along with other survivors to attend the opening of the event.

"I'm looking forward to spiritual healing, reconciliation, engaging, connecting and learning," he said.

"That's what this is about."

Michael Cheena is a residential school survivor who attended both Bishop Horden and Shingwauk residential schools over a period of eight years. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

The event also includes the unveiling of a scale model of a commemorative sculpture in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action 82, which calls on provincial and territorial governments to commission residential school monuments within each capital city to honour survivors and children who were lost to their families and communities.

Symbolic turtle

Anishinaabe artist Solomon King, who is from the Neyaashiinigmiing unceded territory along the Bruce Peninsula, was commissioned to create the sculpture.

Anishinaabe artist Solomon King holds a small model of the Restoration of Identity sculpture, the planned centrepiece of the IRSS Legacy garden expected to be complete in 2020. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

The sculpture is a female turtle crawling over top of a boulder, to signify overcoming struggle. The shell of the turtle has tiles to represent the 13 moons and 28-day cycle. Turtles are symbolic within multiple First Nations creation stories.

"It's about people questioning themselves and thinking about residential schools and thinking about First Nations people, their struggles and Turtle Island and how we're all here together," said King.

"That's the real struggle — we all have to get along."

The province is contributing $1.5 million toward the project and the city, $500,000. The overall cost of the project is expected to be around $5.2 million, with the remainder being fundraised.

The event runs at Nathan Phillips Square until Thursday.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.