Hundreds gathered for the yearly Walk for Reconciliation event on June 21st, proceeding from the Harry Hays building to Fort Calgary in memory of those lost in Canada’s residential school system.
The Walk for Reconciliation has taken place annually in Calgary since 2009, beginning as a partnership between the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary and the Trellis Society. The event memorializes the public apology made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 11th, 2008, where he apologized to residential school survivors for the role of previous administrations in the government’s project of forced assimilation.
“I’ve really seen a shift, since around 2020, I think,” said Nicole Henbrey, the Indigenous Programs Specialist at Fort Calgary. “That was when the discovery at Kamloops occurred.”
In May of 2021, human remains of roughly 200 children were found at the location of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was in operation between 1984 until 1977. This sparked extensive radar examinations into other former residential school locations across Canada. On June of the same year, roughly 751 human remains were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, and 182 human remains were found at the site of St. Eugene’s Mission School, a residential school in BC.
Canada’s residential school program has become a rallying point for indigenous communities urging the government and the public to recognize the centuries-long project of assimilation. It officially began in 1876, as a byproduct of the Indian Act. The intention was to “westernize” indigenous peoples by targeting younger generations and assimilating them into the dominant, government-approved culture.
The total number of children who died in residential schools is currently unknown. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada estimated that out of the roughly 150,000 children who attended residential schools, 3,200 died. The same report claimed that 31,970 cases of sexual assault within schools had been resolved, with 5,995 cases still in progress.
An amendment made in the late 1800s made attendance mandatory for indigenous youth ages seven to sixteen. Children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools operated through a partnership between the Canadian government and the Catholic church, with the government funding the schools and church administration conducting administrative duties. Children were forbidden from speaking their native language and engaging in indigenous cultural practices under the threat of physical punishment.
Children within the residential school system were also subjected to human experimentation by the Canadian government. A study conducted by government researchers studied the effects of malnutrition on children, who were underfed to determine the effects of vitamin supplements on malnutrition. The experimentation took place at residential schools Manitoba, British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta, from 1942 to 1947.
“History is ugly” said Carol Mason, a speaker at the event. “To know history is to remind us to be better human beings, a good neighbor, and a thankful friend.”
“We are survivors. We survived the atrocities and continued to make better lives for ourselves.”
Following the walk to Fort Calgary, names of various residential schools were read out, as well as the years between which they were in operation. As the schools were named, attendees of the event brought ornamental walking sticks corresponding to the various schools to be placed on a display, in memory of the children lost.
Edmonton Residential School, located in Saint Albert, was open from 1924 to 1968. Erminseskin Residential School, located near Hobbema, was open from 1895 to 1975. Blue Quills Residential School, located in Saint Paul, was open from 1935 to 1990.
The generational damage from the residential school program was acknowledged by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008, who issued an apology for the acts of past administrations. The same year, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was established to investigate and document abuses that took place within the residential school system. In 2015, it released a final report which acknowledged the program as “cultural genocide”.
The Commission also established 94 “calls to action”; policy recommendations intended acknowledge “the full, horrifying history of the residential schools system” and to create systems “to prevent these abuses from ever happening again in the future.” As of 2022, only five of those recommendations have been completed, three of which within one month of the discovery in Kamloops.
The walk for reconciliation in Calgary has continued with the support of Fort Calgary, a historical site with a complicated history. Carol Mason recalled how it was “the second Northwest Mounted Police outpost was built in 1875, on the territory of the Blackfoot people.”
“The very ground you are standing on gave birth to our beautiful city of Calgary, where the likes of Chief Crowfoot, Chief Red Crow stood on these grounds, and many other leaders who met and who visited with the northwest mounted police officers who were housed on these grounds.”
In 2015, following the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Fort Calgary shifted the focus of its museum from the history of the Northwest Mounted Police to one that centred indigenous perspectives of the site’s history.
Fort Calgary’s shift in focus toward Indigenous issues and history is emblematic a larger struggle within Canada as it reckons with its colonial past, as well as the present-day ramifications of that history. “We must resolve to stand with survivors, and their families. to have their backs,” said Mason. “Don’t leave them to do this work alone.
“We need your help. We need your understanding. We need you to ensure that this is forever made a part of Canada and its national memory.”
To Nicole Henbrey, everyday Calgarians can do more to participate in the national process of reconciliation, such as “supporting indigenous communities, coming out, and speaking up when we aren’t there to do it.
“This work isn’t nine to five, this is something that you continually have to work towards, and that includes having these conversations with your uncles and aunties, family, and friends, even the kids in your life. This is something that you just have to keep on talking about.”