On Saturday, September 30th, orange was the colour of the day as approximately 70 people gathered at the arena in Garden Village, Nipissing First Nation, to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, to honour survivors of the Canadian residential school system in the community, and to also celebrate their resilience. The ceremonies, hosted by Christina Beaucage, were followed by a walk through the community led by standard bearers and hand drummers, followed by young families and community elders.
Deputy Chief Mike Sawyer opened his address by reminding, “Every child matters. I’d like to welcome everyone here today to pay their respects, their support, their strength for residential school survivors who are here with us today [and those who] didn’t make it back.” He spoke about how the people of NFN have responded by leaning on each other as a community. “As much as residential school was so negative, our survivors showed so much resilience and strength to keep going forward. My grandmother, Delma Sawyer, went to residential school. She spoke about some of the things when I sat with her when I was younger,” he related. She told him the negative things but also emphasized that while there, she found comfort in her spiritual life, “even though she was told not to speak her language and live her culture and heritage. She had two sides of that story, always; one about the negative, but also about the positive.” Deputy Chief Sawyer noted that his grandmother met his grandfather at residential school, a happy event.
Sawyer continued, “To get through these hard times we, as a strong people, need to lean on each other, especially when we’re going through these times and have started to heal, to hear the truth and to reconcile. I try to do my part as a descendant of my grandmother to learn my language, to learn something from our culture.” Sawyer stressed that it’s important, as part of reconciliation, to learn the language, but it doesn’t have to be done in a rush. “It’s not a race. It’s a pace. That’s how we get rid of decolonization. You start to learn our ways, our language. Language is the culture …It’s our way we live. It’s not a religion. It’s who we are. When I reflect on hearing some of the stories from some of the Elders, and some of our survivors who always carry that burden for us, I also look at them and see they’re human. I see their smiles. I see their families. I see their children. And I think, wow! What strength!”
Sawyer related that it is also possible to get stuck in the healing process, in the collective trauma. “We need to balance that out (…) and how we go forward from here is how we help one another. What really brings a smile to my heart on this day is seeing our young ones. Our young ones are living our way. Our generations are starting to get that spirit of revitalization… I start to hear some people using words out of our language, but I don’t think they would have ever used them about 10 years ago… As we start to respect today and do our walk, we walk for those who didn’t make it back… We also walk for the ones who are here today.”
Sawyer’s address was followed by a prayer of gratitude delivered by Elder Evelyn McLeod in Anishnabemowin. A loving presentation of gifts to survivors who were present took place. Brady Penasse was also acknowledged with a gift of a blanket for his contributions to the community, including designing the t-shirts to commemorate the day specifically for Nipissing First Nation, and his ongoing efforts in promoting the culture, including an art installation in North Bay called “The Residential School Desk Project.”