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Listening to Indigenous voices and hard truths

Aboriginal singers in front of the Canadian Parliament
Photo Leigh Anne Williams
By on September 1, 2021

At a loss about what to write or how to address the shock, grief and shame felt across the country as news of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who attended residential schools began to break, I decided to walk to the memorial left by many people at the Centennial Flame in front of Parliament.

It was the week before Canada Day and school was out, so I took my 10-year-old daughter and her cousin with me. On the way, we talked about residential schools, which they have been learning about in school—a big step forward since my school days when there was no mention of the schools or a government policy that forcibly separated children from their families. We talked about what it would have been like for the children who suffered in so many ways. 

I mentioned that an ice cream shop where the girls like to go in Ottawa, The Merry Dairy, had announced that it would close on Canada Day this year. I’ve since looked up the thoughtful message on the shop’s website explaining the decision to close on what is normally a busy, fun day. It is well worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a bit from it: 

On Canada Day, we come together to celebrate Canada as one of the best and greatest countries on earth. But to truly be the best and greatest country means owning up to the brutal facts of our past and present. Each of us needs to do our own part to atone, reconcile, and live together as fellow human beings with the respect and dignity each of us deserves. 

So if your little one asks why the ice cream shop is closed on Canada Day, tell them it’s for all the kids who never got to enjoy ice cream or any other treat on a beautiful sunny day with their own families, in their own homes. And if they ask what they can do, maybe one thing is to draw or write a message of love and healing. And if they drop that message off at our shop on that day, or any day, we’d love to share it with as many people as we can. 

When the girls and I reached Parliament Hill, the memorial was clearly an outpouring of those kind of messages. All around the flame were children’s shoes, toys, and handwritten messages and signs. 

Four young Indigenous women were there singing and drumming. I asked what brought them out that day. “We came to sing for the children,” Amanda Fox, who is from Wiikwemkoong unceded territory, told me. “It’s important to sing for them.”

I asked if they would allow me to include them in the photos I was taking of the memorial for the newspaper (far right in the photo below). They said yes, and Fox thanked me for asking. She said often media outlets don’t always ask and recounted how an image of her holding up a sign for her sister ended up in a CBC advertisement without her permission.

“A sign for your sister?” I asked. She explained that her sister, Cheyenne Fox, had been murdered in Toronto eight years ago. The family protested when the police ruled her death a suicide after an all-too brief investigation.

So much pain in her own family, and yet, here she was singing for the children, a picture of the strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples.

After I returned home and was reviewing my photos, a moving note that I hadn’t read at the site caught my eye. It was written in a beautiful script that looked like water flowing over a background of syllabic characters, and in its spare words expresses so much. 

We found you
You can go home properly
You can rest properly
You are loved

I pray that the power of God working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine to help Indigenous families and communities heal and to help Canada find a new path toward justice and right relations.

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