Ava Bear’s heart filled with emotions as she gently tied a tiny pair of moccasins and bundle of sage to the Muskoday Bridge Monday afternoon.
Bear, the Chief of Muskoday First Nation, was one of the dozens of community members who came to the bridge to tie a pair of kids’ shoes against the fence in honour of the 215 children found in an unmarked grave at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops. The 215 pairs of shoes, accompanied by neon orange ribbons blowing in the breeze, stretched from one end of the bridge to the other, accompanied by a series of signs:
“A small voice whispers. They found us.”
Ronalda Vandale was brought to tears as she crossed the bridge. She was the one who spearheaded the collection of the 215 pairs of shoes. But it wasn’t a project she took on alone.
“It was amazing seeing the community support this morning that came out. We got here at 11 and had all of the shoes hung by 12:15,” she said.
The display sends an important message.
“I wanted to do this to raise awareness of the true history of residential schools in Canada,” she said. I didn’t think people realize the true atrocities that happened.”
The first nation held a ceremony on Saturday that several community members came out to as well. On Monday, which was National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, they hung the shoes.
“As a small child, I remember hearing stories that there were bodies at the schools, but there was nothing concrete. Now we have something concrete. That’s what I wanted to bring awareness to — the truth.”
The message will be hard to miss for any of the dozens of cars who pass over that bridge daily. Muskoday Bridge takes drivers on Highway 3 across the South Saskatchewan River. It’s located about 15 minutes south of Prince Albert and is a major traffic route.
Chief Bear hopes that all the non-Indigenous people who drive across the bridge reflect on what the shoes mean.
“For years we’ve been telling people what happened. This brings the proof,” she said.
“I’m hoping there’s a better understanding amongst everyone, and there’s some funding available for the mental health that’s triggered.”
Vandale said the shoes are hung just steps away from where a former chief’s mother would hear the drum.
Elders would gather amongst the willows to hide from the Indian agent, the ministers and the school teachers. That was the only way they could keep their ceremonies.
After a while, even those drums stopped.
The residential school system operated in Canada for more than a century, with the last schools closing in 1997. About 150,000 Indigenous children were removed and separated from their families and communities to attend the schools. About 20 operated in Saskatchewan.
Many of the children never returned home. Those who did suffered physical and sexual abuse, and were taught to be ashamed of their heritage and their culture. The intergenerational trauma from those schools persists today.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it cultural genocide.
The commission also identified several sites where they believed more unmarked graves to be located. They asked for funding to continue their fact-finding. They were denied.
Now, though, federal and provincial governments are pledging funds to continue that work. Last week, the provincial government gave $2 million to the FSIN to start their research, involving survivors, elders, protocol and ceremony, to research undocumented deaths and burials on formerly federally-operated residential school locations.
The news, and the stories, have opened lots of old wounds in survivors and their families. Supports are available, but as the FSIN said, there isn’t enough manpower to help everyone who’s struggling.
The FSIN said some supports are
“I know there’s going to be more,” Chief Bear said Monday.
“Once we start looking, there are going to be more.”
As she walked the bridge, tying up shoes as she went, she thought about a child that could have worn those shoes, but who never returned home.
“It’s emotional. I’m really glad we had an opportunity to do this today.”
With COVID-19 subsiding, and the bodies found at residential schools across the continent providing a stark reminder of the horrors of colonization, Vandale hopes her people’s culture can continue to grow stronger.
“I hope we can come together as a community,” Vandale said. “It’s through these gatherings and through our culture, history, traditions and ceremonies that we heal.”
Children who missed out on those ceremonies, and who missed out on their culture, struggled.
“I hope our culture becomes stronger and we get our language back,” she said.
It’s through those ceremonies that “we can slowly start to regain what makes us First nations,” Vandale said. ‘What makes us Indigenous.”