With the approach of Canada Day, there are growing calls from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to cancel celebrations and instead use the time to grieve those who died at residential schools.
Meanwhile, the fire keepers at the Niagara Regional Native Centre on Airport Road, with respect, calm and kindness, are concentrating on their purpose and their responsibilities, offering the community a safe and sacred place to mourn, to remember, and to share their grief with others.
They are keeping a healing fire going for seven days, 24 hours a day, for anyone who needs help working through their grief, and to pay their respects to those who were lost.
It began last Friday, at noon, and will continue until sunrise Friday, July 2.
When Karl Dockstader, executive director felt the need for the seven-day healing fire, the country was reeling from the news of hundreds of Indigenous children who were taken from their families to attend residential schools, recently found buried in graves on school properties. But while there was surprise and shock expressed over the horrific treatment of young children, and the responsibility of the government and church for what happened, the news was not a surprise to the second and third generation Indigenous people who, all their lives, have heard the stories passed down through their families, says Dockstader.
Canada Day is not a day of celebration for Indigenous people, nor is Canada a country that should be celebrated, he says.
The discovery of the graves, he says, has provided an opportunity to learn more about the truth, and that, he hopes, will provoke the public to push leaders to seek justice. “We saw that with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was pushed by the Canadian public, who learned about the double standard Indigenous people had to face,” says Dockstader.
“The best hope is that change will come from the Canadian people. That’s how change should come.”
He’d been tending the fire around the clock, refreshed Sunday by a night sleeping outside, “under the stars — a dream come true,” a time of peace, he adds, and reflects on what he considers the surprising traction for cancelling Canada Day activities.
“The movement has created these kinds of conversations. This is what we hoped for.”
That includes the non-First Nations people who have come to the healing fire, he adds, which has created a safe space for people talk.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve met people who say ‘I didn’t know what happened,’ and they feel driven to effect positive change. That’s what I draw hope from.”
The media, he adds, “is actually trying to tell these stories in a fair way.”
Kelyn Best, a 29-year-old Brock University student, was at the native centre for the healing fire Sunday. Her grandmother Norma passed away when Best was just three years old, so she has no memories of her, but has certainly heard the stories of her life, passed down through the family. From the Fort Qu’Appelle Valley region in Saskatchewan of Treaty 4, not far from Regina, her grandmother and siblings were survivors of residential schools — although Best won’t use the word school. “I don’t know many schools that have graves,” she says. “We have to be mindful of the language we use. It’s very important.”
Her grandmother and siblings were separated, according to the policy of the day, and sent to different facilities, including the Marieval Indian Residential School where 751 unmarked graves were recovered.
That was the largest horrific discovery of unmarked graves to date. Those buried there were mostly children, with then news coming soon after ground-penetrating radar technology located the remains of at least 215 children buried on the property of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
Best, her immediate family in Toronto, came to the healing fire to mourn and honour these children, her family and her community. At the healing fire, she shared her thoughts of the grandmother she never knew, and her feelings about what was done to Norma and other children, in a “space in time that allows us to grieve, and to heal together.”
To those who celebrate Canada Day, she says, “imagine mourning the loss of your loved ones while fireworks are going off all around you, with no consideration of the impacts of those actions and expressions of celebration, and what they are taking away from others.” When we celebrate, she explains, we are celebrating the perpetrators of this violence.
It’s been a rough time for her, she says, made more difficult by the knowledge that there will surely be more graves recovered, “knowing in these moments that it’s just the beginning. Some of these children are my immediate kin, and they are all of our kin. These searches will continue, and it touches all of us, some more broadly, some directly, and the closer it gets to home, to your family and your kin, the harder it is.”
Best says she’s grateful to the community for offering their support during what has been a very difficult time for her and many others. “I don’t know what I would have done without them.”
It’s a time to talk about whether celebrating is appropriate, she says, a comment quickly picked up by Phil Davis, a staff member of the native centre, and also a fire keeper.
“It’s a sentiment we’re all sharing,” he says. “We’ve been trying to bring awareness to non-Indigenous people for decades, and no matter how much we speak, people aren’t listening. It’s time they did. People are beginning to do their research, they’re beginning to understand the depth of the deception of this country and what is taught about it in history,” he says, referencing the colonization “that was all about resources and power.”
The healing fire, he says, is for anyone who wants to be part of it, to have a place for grief and to process it, “and to make the unknown known.”
Chris Kagesheongai, also a fire keeper speaks of the traditions that have been passed down through generations. It’s organized and hosted by the community, for the community, he says, and it’s important that it isn’t allowed to go out, whatever the weather. It’s a place for people to pay their respects, but it’s also a sacred place to be treated with great respect, he adds, asking that no photos be taken of the fire itself.
“An image is just an image. It’s a better experience to be here, not to see it as an image.”
A healing fire is not a place for anger, he explains, but rather a place to let it go, to think about the spirits lost, and to offer calm, kindness, and love, which is how those at the fire are expected to treat each other.
“We can’t have anger around the fire. We have to be of a good heart and a good mind. This is about those we’re grieving for.”