Over the last week, Lesser Slave Lake communities and residents held memorials for the 215 Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc children found recently in unmarked graves at a Kamloops Indian residential school.
Many of the elders who use the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre are residential school survivors, says Barb Courtorielle, Friendship Centre. “This just brings it all back for them. This is not an easy time for them.”
Since 2013, orange shirts and the motto ‘Every Child Matters’ have been used to raise awareness about Indian residential schools. These operated from 1893 and 1996. For much of this time, children were forced to attend the schools. The goal was to get the Indian out of the child.
On May 31 at 2:15 p.m. the M.D. of Opportunity and Bigstone Cree Nation hosted a memorial at the Wabasca Cenotaph. Other local First Nations also held memorials. St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, Slave Lake Koinonia Christian School, Smith School and others encouraged students and staff to wear orange and held memorials on May 31.
In Slave Lake, Moe Mouallem got the ball rolling with a post on Facebook. Jenna Jackson started collecting children’s shoes for a memorial. Orange shirts, ribbons, teddy bears, and children’s shoes popped up all over town.
On June 1, the Town of Slave Lake announced a memorial walk. Shortly afterward, the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre announced a healing ceremony.
Mass turnout in memory of the Kamloops 215
On June 2, these two events merged into one which started before 5:15 p.m. and ended around 7:30 p.m.
Slave Lake area had three residential schools. One each in Grouard, Joussard, and Wabasca. Survivors from these schools and family members of survivors spoke, smudged, sang, drummed, prayed, sang and danced at the memorial.
Esther Giroux of Swan River First Nation spoke. When she was three-and-a-half, she said, she was torn from her mother’s arms and taken to residential school. She was punished for crying. She didn’t learn it was okay to show emotions until she was an adult.
“I was ashamed of being Indian,” she said.
Another residential school survivor, Dustin Twin Sr., said he was also ashamed to be Native.
Both also spoke about their healing journeys, which included reconnecting with their Cree culture.
Dustin Twin Jr. is a member of Swan River council.
“Our people were never broken,” he said. The discovery of the unmarked graves and these memorials are not an end, but a beginning.
“Let’s look at this as something that makes us stronger,” said Stan Isadore, Driftpile First Nation council member, and Slave Lake resident.
Local Métis, First Nations, and various non-Indigenous people from the area attended.
There were too many people involved to mention them all, but there were representatives from Sawridge First Nation, Swan River First Nation, Driftpile First Nation, the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre, the Town of Slave Lake, and both the Treaty 8 flag and Métis flag were prominent.
The Rotary Club of Slave Lake Library archive is looking into preserving existing stories and gathering more.