Truth, reconciliation and a day to honour residential school victims

As a child, Jack Chrisjohn didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to speak his Indigenous language.

“Both my parents went through residential school, and because of that, my dad wouldn’t let us speak the language,” said Chrisjohn, who is from Oneida Nation of the Thames, a First Nation southwest of London.

Students at residential schools often were beaten and tortured for speaking their Indigenous languages.

It wasn’t until Chrisjohn was older that he learned why his father was hesitant to let him learn Oneida.

“One day, when we were old enough, he finally said, ‘Look, this is what happened to me. This is what I went through. They beat it out of me. Every day I got beaten just for talking my language,’” recalled Chrisjohn.

His dad, who attended the former Mount Elgin Industrial residential school on Chippewas of the Thames First Nation for five years, didn’t want the same for Chrisjohn and his family, so he never brought the language into the house.

On Friday, Chrisjohn, a fire keeper, was offering tobacco to anyone who wanted to offer a prayer in honour of the children who attended residential schools during a gathering for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in London’s Wortley Village.

He was joined by hundreds of orange-clad attendees there to mark the federal holiday, otherwise known as Orange Shirt Day, a day to honour residential school victims, survivors, their families and communities. The federal government designated Sept. 30 as an official holiday last year in response to a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and following the revelations about suspected unmarked graves at sites of former residential schools in Western Canada.

For Chrisjohn, who began learning Oneida after his father’s death, the day is about honouring those who suffered. “It’s going back in time, and it’s (about) trying to fix some of the wrongs. I know we can’t make everything perfect, but let’s recognize it and start building and working together for a better future.”

Friday’s gathering drew hundreds of people from London and area communities to the Green in Wortley. The 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. event featured speakers from Indigenous communities and agencies, information booths, drumming and jingle dress and smoke dancers. It was organized by Atlohsa Family Healing Services, the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, Chippewas of Thames First Nation, and the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre.

Across the city, hundreds more people dressed in orange gathered outside N’Amerind Friendship Centre for the unveiling of a seven-panel mural painted by Mike Cywink, an Ojibwe from Whitefish River First Nation near Manitoulin Island.

Standing at the intersection of Colborne and Horton streets, to the backdrop of people reading the story behind each of the colourful panels, Cywink described the experience of working on the project as both “extremely humbling” and “extremely tough.”

“I know we’re here celebrating the good things and the work. It was still a heavy morning for me. I think about the kids and the children, and the ones who never made it home from residential schools,” he said.

Cywink spent the last few months consulting with residential school survivors and working with Indigenous youth to complete the project, which is funded by N’Amerind Friendship Centre, the City of London and the London Arts Council.

Sixteen-year-old Sir Frederick James Nicholas, a student at H.B. Beal secondary school in London, is one of those youth. "It's the biggest thing that I've ever done in my life," he said of working on the project.

"And to see how many people showed up and how many people came out to see it, to support us, and to congratulate us on this amazing project, it's just so cool."

While Sept. 30 is about honouring residential school survivors and victims, it's also about supporting one another and telling the stories of Indigenous people, he said.

"We're the first generation to learn about residential schools in our school system," said Nicholas.

"When it's our turn to carry the torch and to lead our children toward the future, we'll make sure that we're not the last generation to learn about this."

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press