Victoria celebrates the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
IT HAS BEEN HEARTENING to see how Canadians are beginning their journey to true reconciliation and respect for Indigenous peoples and to fully comprehend the injustice and devastating impacts of the residential school system.
In Victoria there were a number of events in recognition of this first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The making of the statutory holiday itself is a step towards reconciliation. It provides an opportunity to recognize and commemorate the tragic history and ongoing legacy of residential schools, and to honour Indigenous survivors, their families and communities.
Featured here are photos by Dawna Mueller with words by speakers at the Xe xe Smun’ eem event held at Centennial Square. Xe xe Smun’ eem means “Sacred Children” in the Cowichan or Quw’utsun language. It has also become known as Orange Shirt Day for the shirt that was taken from a six-year-old Phyllis Webstad (Northern Secwpemc/Shuswap) on her first day at school, leaving her with feelings of worthlessness.
Stories, songs, dancers, drummers, blessings and tears were all part of the three-hour ceremony.
Below the photo essay are links to articles on this site about reconciliation. —the editor
An attentive audience of a few hundred gathered for the three-hour ceremony in Centennial Square on September 30, 2021. This is the fifth consecutive year that the City of Victoria is supporting the event to mark the City’s commitment to reconciliation.
Eddy Charlie and Kristin Spray are the organizers of the Xe xe Smun' eem-Victoria Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters event, which they developed in 2015 while attending the Indigenous Studies program at Camosun College. Eddy Charlie, a survivor who attended the Kuper Island residential school, said there were 150,000 children stolen from their families and communities during the residential school era. “They took away our language, they took away our identity, they took away our ability to function as a family, they starved us and beat us.” He also talked of the sexual abuse he experienced from age four-and-a-half by a priest. “Some of the residential schools created some of the most perfect hate machines ever,” he said. And the hate was taken back to their homes; “we became part of that genocide, we taught people to hate…” He said, “I can make a different choice now.” In sharing his experiences, he hopes to encourage others to do so and to make this country strong again. Said Spray, “What I was taught in school growing up was a myth; it didn’t include the people who were here first.” She and Charlie thanked the City for making time and space for the event and the many local businesses who helped because “they want to be part of the truth-telling and see a change in this country.”
The Orange Shirt Day flag was raised, followed by 15 drum beats and a minute of silence to honour and remember those who did not survive residential school. The flag was lowered to half-mast after the ceremony.
Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria: “We’re here today to honour those who survived the dehumanizing and utterly unspeakable conditions of the residential school system.” It’s also, she continued, “to honour those children who never came home.” She asked attendees to consider what difference they could make in the next year, and “to make known what we know.”
Dr Danièle Behn Smith and children, Deputy Provincial Health Officer Indigenous Health. She is from Fort Nelson First Nation and Red River Métis: “There are no words that can make this right; there is only action.” Dr Behn Smith said she desires the “freedom to be ourselves.” Though many non-Indigenous no longer believe—as the early colonizers and settlers did—that they are better than Indigenous peoples, “our systems, structures and laws are still rooted in those racist beliefs.” She urged non-Indigenous people to ask themselves how they can “disrupt the status quo” and “earn back our trust.”
Dance, drumming and song were performed by Westwind Intertribal Drum, a family drum. The family comes from a long lineage of pow wow people. Their late grandfather, Ernie Bertrum, was from the Pullalup (P-U-AL-UP) and Yakama (YAK-A-MA) Nations. He brought the drum and teachings to this territory and to keep his culture alive he would sing with his children. Many of of the family began pow wow with their late Uncle Joe Henry as the Thunderbird Singers and Dancers. Later they formed Westwind Intertribal with lead singer, the late Ernie Alphonse.
Laurel Collins, Member of Parliament, Victoria: “How do we support healing? What are our next steps on this path of reconciliation.” She stressed that though we may not have all the answers, it’s important to start the journey with truth and humility. She pledged to fight to get the federal government to address chronic underfunding of services for Indigenous children and, referring to the unmarked graves sites, “to bring every child home.”
Victoria Children’s Choir, celebrating 20 years, performed under the directorship of Teodora Georgieva.
Carl Mashon, Acting Director in the Community and Social Innovation Branch, Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, is a Sixties Scoop child of Cree ancestry. Mashon also served for 16 years at the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres.
Mashon spoke of his birth mother, Elizabeth Cardinal, a member of the Saddle Lake Nation. She was the first from her community to finish high school and join the Canadian airforce. At 19 she got pregnant and was discharged from the airforce and quickly pressured by the Catholic Church to give up her baby. After five years in the care of the church, Carl was adopted by a non-native family in Southern Alberta, at least avoiding being placed in the residential school system, as were others in the orphanage. It wasn’t until many years later when, suspecting he was of native ancestry, Carl found and reconnected with his birth mother and family. “I can get angry when I think about this country…”
Such realities as the residential school system and the recently found gravesites, he said, harden our hearts over the years. Events such as this ceremony are important because they “soften our hearts.”
Minister Mitzi Dean, BC Ministry of Children and Family Development, presents plaques to the event organizers Eddy Charlie and Kristin Spray. Describing herself as a longtime witness to the devastating impact the residential schools have had, Dean committed to working with Indigenous people to rebuilding the system into one they can trust. She noted that the recent discoveries of children’s gravesites bolsters the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation for a system in which “no Indigenous children are brought into care.”
Dawna Mueller is an award-winning photographer focusing on issues of social and environmental justice. Dawna was born in Winnipeg and is Red River Métis, Cree and Saulteux on her mother’s side and Czech on her father’s. Adopted into a family of Ukrainian heritage at birth, she only discovered her indigenous heritage as an adult and is on a reclamation journey to discover her roots. Ironically, without even knowing she was Indigenous, Dawna studied Political Science at Camosun College, finishing with a BA from UBC majoring in Native Indian Studies as it was called in the 1980s. As well, she graduated from Allard Hall School of Law at UBC and studied Art and History at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.
Dawna is currently studying for Masters of Photography and focusing on the Residential School Issue. After discovering many of her aunties, uncles and a cousin were victims of the residential school system in Canada, she has committed to photographically documenting this as a way of raising awareness and continuing the narrative both within and outside of Indigenous communities. www.dawnamueller.com (Dawna Mueller’s photographs documenting the Fairy Creek forest defence can also be found on this site.)
For further commentary on issues related to the reconciliation project, please see the following articles on this site:
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic’s First Nations are done with having land, children, opportunity and prosperity stolen from them
Let’s Change these Place Names: British Columbia and Victoria, by Stephen Hume
“You and your people were not invited here” by Stephen Hume
Following the Good River: the Life and Times of Wa'xaid, by Briony Penn. Book review and interview by Amy Reiswig
Facing the truth: Canada was founded on a national crime by Stephen Hume
“The islands are our homelands, too,” says W̱SÁNEĆ youth by Katlja Lafferty
And from our vault, 2013, by Katherine Palmer Gordon: Truth and Irreconciliation
A video of the September 30 ceremony, produced by the City of Victoria, can be found here.