Niverville ceremonies focus on truth and reconciliation

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (NDTR) was recognized by communities across the country on September 30. Schools around the province also recognized the historical relevance of the day by hosting Orange Shirt Day events during the week leading up to the holiday.

This year marks the second anniversary since NDTR became recognized as an official holiday in Canada. The goal is to provide an opportunity for Canadians of all ethnicities to educate themselves, reflect upon the past, and listen to the voices of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, survivors of the dark events that have come to light about what happened at residential schools and during the Sixties Scoop.

Niverville Students Participate

Beginning on September 26, students at Niverville High School (NHS) were invited to participate in a smudge ceremony each morning to begin the school day.

“Smudging is a tradition common to many First Nations which involves the burning of one or more medicines gathered from the earth,” the NHS website states. “Smudging allows people to stop, slow down, become mindful and centred.”

On Thursday, September 29, NHS students joined with students of Niverville Elementary School (NES) and the Niverville Nighthawks in a march around the community to commemorate Orange Shirt Day.

The orange shirt has become a national symbol for truth and reconciliation since Canadian Phyllis Webstad told her story of losing her beloved orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, to residential school authorities who were intent on stripping their charges of their Indigenous heritage and culture.

“NES and NHS are excited to have joined together in a neighbourhood walk to draw awareness to Orange Shirt Day and the importance of Truth and Reconciliation,” says NHS principal Kimberly Funk. “The message that every child matters is an important one and they showed recognition of that today by wearing orange T-shirts and tying orange ribbons to the NES schoolyard fence along Main Street.”

Indigenous Leaders Share Stories at Community Ceremony

On Friday, September 30, ceremonies continued at the Niverville Community Fellowship church where Indigenous leaders shared their stories of heartache and hope.

Peter YellowQuill shares the lineage of famous Indigenous leaders such as Sitting Bull, the infamous Lakota leader who raised an army against Lt. Col. Custer in a resistance against the policies of the United States government in the nineteenth century.

He is also a fifth generation descendent of Chief YellowQuill, a signatory to Treaty No. 1. And he’s a residential school survivor.

“During my residential school years, I never knew who I was or where I came from,” YellowQuill told an attentive Niverville audience. “After 11 years or so, I came out with a stony heart. I came out with a bruised body and a hurt mind. I [hadn’t learned anything] about my grandfather or the treaties or nothing.”

It took him years of struggle and hardship to find his peace and to reconcile with his true culture and identity.

Since then, YellowQuill has been on a mission to help bring healing to other residential school survivors and to bridge the gap between the cultures that were divided through the atrocity.

He reflected back to 1975 when evangelical minister Billy Graham referred to the country’s Indigenous culture as the Sleeping Giant. Graham suggested that the Sleeping Giant was at that moment awakening.

Thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation movement, he concluded, the Sleeping Giant is indeed awakening.

YellowQuill no longer holds animosity towards the descendants of those who were responsible for the oppression of Indigenous nations in Canada. Instead he charged those gathered at the Niverville ceremony with a responsibility to pray that his people find healing and peace.

Glen Cochrane is a leader and pastor at Peguis First Nation, a Manitoba community that is making great strides to return its Indigenous roots.

The Peguis band receives their name from Chief Peguis, a respected leader who settled his people along the Red River in the late 1700s, near what we know today as Selkirk.

The area, at the time, was called St. Peters. It was an area rich with food and resources. Years later, the Lord Selkirk settlers began to arrive.

“We’re here about truth today,” Cochrane told the audience. “On July 18, 1817, our Chief Peguis signed a treaty with Lord Selkirk, [sharing] lands along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers for settlement purposes. He was the very first chief in history to sign any such treaty. Forfeiting and giving lands to the settlers that came.”

Cochrane says his people believed that land could not be possessed. Mother Earth could only be shared. According to historical writings, he says, these new English settlers were aided by Chief Peguis and this was key to their survival in the harsh Manitoba landscape and climate.

In 1907, the land of St. Peters underwent an illegal land transfer, an event which became known as one of the biggest land swindles in Canadian history.

According to Cochrane, leaders of the English settlement of St. Peters called a meeting, held in a schoolhouse large enough to contain only half of those invited. Peguis leaders were given only one day’s notice of the meeting. Many of them were away, fishing on Lake Winnipeg at the time the meeting was held.

“History shows that… the surrender agreement wasn’t fully read to all those that were present at that meeting,” Cochrane says. “What was read was only in English. The terms were not translated to Cree or explained.”

An illegal vote was held which forced the Peguis to surrender their occupied land to the English. Overnight, the Indigenous people of St. Peters were rendered homeless and landless.

“A migration happened of humans from one place to another,” Cochrane says. “That migration is known to the members of Peguis First Nations as the Trail of Tears.”

Cochrane’s wife Verla shared stories of her grandmother’s experience as a six-year-old child on the Trail of Tears. With a few belongings packed onto an ox cart, the family of six headed northward, into the unknown.

“She said it was the roughest ride of her life,” Verla said. “There were times they had to get off the wagon so they could cut down trees… It was only the dad that could work the saw and the little boys would haul the limbs and whatever they could move out of the way for the oxen [to keep going].”

The Peguis First Nations eventually resettled on new land 196 kilometres north of Winnipeg. There was nothing there but bush and swamp. It is a flood-prone area to this day.

“On June 29, 1998, Canada acknowledged the illegal taking of St. Peter’s,” Cochrane said. “That was the beginning of reconciliation between us and Canada.”

Cochrane recalls Prime Minister Harper’s apology to the First Nations people of Canada. That moment became the impetus for negotiations which eventually led to the Treaty Land Entitlement process, restoring land to the First Nations people primarily in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Today, the Peguis band is the largest First Nation community in Manitoba with a population of just over 11,000 people living on a parcel of land that covers just over 77,000 acres.

The community has its own RCMP detachment, safety services, and healthcare services. There is a vibrant commercial sector, seniors housing, and a school with an independent board.

“The language was lost by many of our First Nations members, my wife and I included,” Cochrane said. “But the good news is that my grandsons are now learning the language in the Peguis school.”

As for healing from the pain experienced by residential school survivors, Verla Cochrane says the first step is learning to talk about it.

“There was a lot of abuse and things that make you shameful,” Verla said of her family’s firsthand experiences. “You don’t want to talk about it, but because this is the second year of truth and reconciliation, we can talk about it. As a grandmother, I can tell my grandkids. I’m a survivor. We are resilient people. We are still here.”

Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen