As It Happens·Q&A

Organizer leading Canada Day protest in Montreal says she's 'never seen anything so amazing'

Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, led the Honour Indigenous Children March in Montreal. She was out in the streets on Thursday when she spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal.

If everyone on the street pressed the government for change, 'we could move mountains,' says organizer Nakuset

Hundreds of people, many dressed in orange, gather in Montreal on Thursday to mourn the Indigenous children who died in Canada's residential school system. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Read Story Transcript

The organizer of a Canada Day protest in Montreal says she's never experienced anything quite like it.

Thousands of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, marched through the city on Thursday to mourn the thousands of Indigenous children killed in Canada's residential school system. It was one of several such events across the country.

This year's Canada Day comes after a series of preliminary ground scans revealed what are believed to be more than 1,000 unmarked graves at or near former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan. 

Between the 1870s and the 1990s, Canada's federal government took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend church-run residential schools designed to assimilate them by stripping them of their own languages and cultures. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has found evidence that at least 4,100 children died of disease, malnourishment, suicide and more at the institutions, but says the true total is likely much higher. Many of those children remain unaccounted for.

Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, led the Honour Indigenous Children March in Montreal.

Listen: Nakuset describes the mood in the streets of Montreal on Canada Day:

She was out in the streets on Thursday when she spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. Here is part of their conversation. 

You are in the middle of the march right now. Describe to our listeners where exactly you are and what is happening around you.

We're actually taking up two sides of the street. So there's an absolutely huge turnout.

What are people saying? What is the energy you're feeling as you lead this march?

We have some really, really amazing speakers and singers. And, you know, when the speakers share, there's a lot of emotion in that, and people are crying. And when the singers sing, they're singing songs about these children.

The whole point of this was so that people can release their pain in a safe manner, so that's definitely happening. But I would say that the mood from everyone is very much in solidarity and it's very peaceful.

Nakuset is executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, and she led Thursday's march. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

You talked about the emotions people are feeling, giving people that opportunity to release what has built up over decades, not just over the last a couple of months as Canadians who didn't know or hadn't learned about the history of this country and what happened at residential schools.

I mean, people are really standing with us, walking with us. And this is so important. I mean, like, it's absolutely devastating what has happened that is being uncovered. And we know that there's so much more coming.

The mood is really, really awesome. You know, I'm standing right now in front of the march and we have these beautiful banners that were made specifically for it. And then we have all the Indigenous drummers that are drumming. And then it's the rest of the group. And it's just like a sea of people. And that's what I wanted. I wanted a sea of orange, and I was lucky to get it.

But, you know, at the end of the day, this needs to be acknowledged and things need to change. I don't like it when people are like, "Oh, you should reflect about it." Reflect sounds too very, very short. We need actual steps and we need pressure on the government. We need pressure on the churches to release the names. We need proper burials for these children.

We really want accountability. We want something like the Nuremberg trials. We want people to be accountable for what they've done because it's not open season on Indigenous people, but that seems to be sort of the the idea. And that's happened basically since colonialism, right? Since the settlers arrived and they just sort of pushed us aside.

If you're going to celebrate Canada Day, understand what you're celebrating. You're celebrating the oppression of Indigenous people. You're celebrating these mass graves. This is the actual history of Canada.- Nakuset, Honour Indigenous Children March organizer 

Do do you feel [we] are at a different point in this country now, that all of the things you listed might actually happen now?

It's hard to say. I would love it if that would happen, but I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Is everyone going to be like, "Oh, well I went for a march, that's I need to do. I'm good"?

There needs to be more change. People need to, like, wake up tomorrow and call their politicians and ask them what they're doing about this. They need to go to their churches on Sunday and say, "Hey, how are you implicated in this?"

You need to make those steps with the community. And I think that, you know, we will welcome them. We'll welcome people back into the reservations where the mass graves are. We'll welcome the flowers. But we also want something more concrete. And there are so many different ways that you can fight systemic discrimination, and there's so much knowledge and books and studies already out there. So you need to apply them. And if you're not applying them, find out why.

Hundreds gather in Montreal to denounce residential schools

3 months ago
1:00
Hundreds of people gathered in Montreal's Jeanne-Mance park on Thursday not to celebrate Canada Day, but instead denounce the country's legacy of residential schools. 1:00

What do you say to others who still want to set off fireworks and things like that?

People can do whatever they want, right, at the end of the day. The thing is that if you're going to celebrate Canada Day, understand what you're celebrating. You're celebrating the oppression of Indigenous people. You're celebrating these mass graves. This is the actual history of Canada.

Would you celebrate when something terrible happens like, you know, 9-11, when the buildings came down? Was there celebration the next day? Did people do fireworks? No. So why do you think that our pain is not worthy of you choosing maybe another time to do fireworks?

Are you seeing a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in that crowd? Do you feel a broader support?

Oh my God, we have many non-Indigenous people here. There's more non-Indigenous than Indigenous. And they are walking with us, and they're walking proudly. They have their banners. They even brought their own drums and they're singing. It's incredible. I've never seen anything so amazing in my whole life. I mean, I've done a couple of protests before, but this is by far the best.

After today, what does tomorrow look like for you?

I go to work. I work at the Native Women's Shelter. I go to work and I keep doing the work that I do. And of course, the work that I do stems from systemic discrimination. The women that go to the shelter were themselves either in residential school or their parents were.

So you just keep doing what you have to do. And I will continue to push the government in my own way. As a Cree woman, I'll do my best. But if everyone in this crowd did the same thing, oh my God, we could move mountains.

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.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


MORE FROM THIS EPISODE

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

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

Sign up now

now