MacEwan University’s Treaty 6 marker, Mother Bear Prays for Earth Healing, is located just outside the kihêw waciston Indigenous centre. On September 30, a fire ceremony will be held near the marker throughout the day.
On September 30, MacEwan University will observe the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a day of learning and reflection.
“This is a day of public reflection, and a day to create space for grief, healing and education in commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools,” says Dr. Annette Trimbee, president and vice-chancellor. “As an institution of higher learning, we have a responsibility to bring awareness to our campus of the history of Indigenous people in Canada and to create opportunities for dialogue with Indigenous communities.”
In preparation for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the university’s kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre has been holding and planning events and connecting with Indigenous community members.
“We reached out to Indigenous community partners, leaders and mentors in making the decision of whether to remain open,” says Terri Suntjens, director of Indigenous Initiatives. “We felt that doing so in a respectful way would create spaces to educate, to have important conversations about the true history of Indigenous people of this country, and to hold ceremony for our students, faculty, staff and community.”
Leading up to September 30, kihêw waciston organized opportunities to prepare for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, including an online event on September 16, where Suntjens, along with MacEwan faculty members Amber Dion, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, and Shelby LaFramboise, assistant professor in the Faculty of Fine Art and Communications, answered questions, shared reflections and provided resources on residential schools and reconciliation. A recording of the event is available here.
While September 30, 2021 is the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the last day in September has been Orange Shirt Day since 2013 – a day to honour survivors of residential schools and to remember the thousands of children who never returned home.
About Orange Shirt Day
Orange Shirt Day originated from the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, who was six years old on her first day at Mission residential school in 1973. She and her grandmother had picked out a brand new orange shirt for her first day, but at Mission, she was stripped of her clothes and her orange shirt was taken away. Read Webstad’s story in her own words.
“We have all been impacted by the incredibly dark legacy of the Indian residential school experience, whether we like to acknowledge it or not,” says LaFramboise. “It is an intersection of how we live our daily life with one another, of our conscious or unconscious biases, and how we occupy our spaces.”
The ongoing discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools – now 6,500 as of publishing this article – is one of many truths that need to be acknowledged on September 30, and every day, says LaFramboise.
“We all carry these stories within our families – these stories are not new,” she says. “These stories are now coming to be part of the truth about what we now call Canada.”
Truth Telling and Teachings
Medicine Teachings with Elder Francis Whiskeyjack is part of a new video series developed by kihêw waciston, Edmonton Public Schools, Edmonton Catholic Schools, Edmonton Public Library, Yellowhead Tribal College and the City of Edmonton’s Indigenous Relations.
Discussing that truth was the focus of a discussion led by Dr. Lillian Gadwa-Crier on September 23.
“Imagine your child being taken from your arms and taken away to an institution or school or building – whatever you call them – and kept there for five or 10 or 15 years,” says the assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts and Science. “When children were snatched from their mothers, the bond was severed and the teachings were lost.”
Dr. Gadwa-Crier shared her own family’s experiences with residential school – her father’s escape when he was eight years old and his insistence that his children would not attend. She spoke of the power of culture and its ability to heal. A recording of her presentation is available here.
“We are a kind, humble and beautiful nation of people that were unfortunately oppressed,” she says. “We need to, as a community, mamawokamatoyak (work together) to heal from the atrocities inflicted on past generations. We have the responsibility, as survivors of the impact of Indian Residential Schools, to begin to heal and to turn that intergenerational trauma into generational blessings – to make a healthy future for kitawasimsinowak (our children). We honour nistameyihmakanak (our ancestors) by reflections, commemorations and ceremony not just on September 30, but every day from now on.”
Honouring survivors and visually demonstrating allyship on campus in a very visual way is something Dion hopes to see on September 30.
“There are some simple, yet profound, things that we can do on September 30 and one of those things is to wear orange shirts,” she says. “When we see the flood of orange throughout our institution, it makes a statement. It’s a very visible act of solidarity and allyship.”
For children by children
This year, kihêw waciston has produced orange shirts (limited quantities are available at the mstore) and decals (available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org) using artwork from Amaya Suntjens.
Amaya says that Orange Shirt Day is to honour residential school survivors and that she honours nimosôm (grandfather) that day. He went to residential school when he was eight years old – the same age Amaya is now.
“I drew a big heart, then I drew two people in it holding hands,” she says. “The big heart is for love, I drew flowers in it because I really like flowers and the people are to show that every child matters.”
Amaya’s message? “I want people to know that every child matters and I want people to feel loved.”
“It’s important to think about who is being served by our allyship,” she explains. “Is it to gain social capital? Is it serving the community?”
It takes time to become a true ally, adds Dion. So does reconciliation.
“Sometimes we want to rush towards reconciliation,” she says. “I understand why we might want to do that – the act of reconciliation makes us feel better. But I encourage everyone to remember that truth and reconciliation go hand in hand, that they coexist. There is still a lot of truth telling that needs to continue to happen, and creating space for that truth telling, for reconciliation, and to be in relationship with one another is really important throughout our institution, especially in our classrooms.”
LaFramboise views reconciliation as a subjective experience. “I cannot tell anyone what reconciliation looks like to them,” she says. Taking fracturing stories and making new ones, she adds, is part of moving forward together.
“How do we make those new stories? I think it happens in spaces within our scholarly realms – how we facilitate knowledge, create spaces with our students, and how they can create new stories with one another. How can we lift up ethical spaces within the places we call classrooms – whether on the land or in digital form. How will we tell this new story?”
Elder Francis Whiskeyjack, who will be available throughout the day on September 30, shares an analogy for how we might answer LaFramboise’s question.
“When you build a bridge with the proper kind of materials, even the weather elements will not harm it. But if the bridge is not built properly, it is going to fall. I am talking about relationships. Building those relationships is a lifelong journey.”
Speaking Truth – September 29
kihêw waciston is partnering with the University of Alberta’s First Peoples’ House to present an evening of music and healing with Indigenous artists.
We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.