Local memorials for residential school children

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

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.

Remembering the children

A young participant in the June 2 event held in memory of 215 children found in unmarked graves at a Kamloops, B.C. residential school places a stuffed toy at the memorial site at the town office in Slave Lake. Several hundred people took part in the event.

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.

Young people carry children’s dresses, a smudge, the Treaty 8 and Métis flags to lead the June 2 Slave Lake memorial and healing event for the 215 children found in unmarked graves at a Kamloops residential school. The parade of people stretched several blocks.
Various Slave Lake and Smith schools held memorial events on May 31 for the 215 children found in unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school. Pictured here, Hudson Ghostkeeper, Slave Lake Koinonia Christian School Grade 2 student, releases orange butterflies as part of the Koinonia’s residential school memorial service. Hudson’s great-grandparents Eleanor and Joe Sawan both attended residential schools, says Koinonia principal Elizabeth Lund.
Darlene Walker dances around the drums at the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre before the walk.
Kirby Chalifoux, of Driftpile First Nation, does the traditional men’s dance at the end of the walk.
Esther Giroux (right) sang and spoke about her experience in residential school. Her sister Eleanor Sawan (left) provided moral support. They are members of Swan River First Nation. Eleanor lives in Slave Lake.
A portion of the crowd at the end of the memorial walk.
Kailey Lebsack (left) and Aaliyah W. wore orange as on May 31 as part of the Smith School memorial for the Kamloops 215.

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