Vigil commemorates ongoing trauma left behind by residential school system

By: Sophie Armstrong and Joti Grewal

Although the last residential school in Canada was shut down in 1996, the trauma caused by the institution still exists today.

On Sept. 30, a vigil was held in front of the Egerton Ryerson statue to commemorate the ongoing trauma left behind by the residential school system.

About 100 people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities gathered in a circle in front of the statue, which they covered with an orange cloth.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities surround the controversial Egerton Ryerson statue in a vigil to commemorate the ongoing trauma left behind by the residential school system. (Photo by Joti Grewal)

The vigil coincided with Orange Shirt Day. The Orange Shirt Day project began in 2013, when Phyllis Webstad, from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, told her story of how she was stripped of her orange shirt on her first day at St. Joseph Mission residential school in British Columbia. She never saw that shirt again.

Participants lit candles, shared stories of the residential school system and came together in song.

One of the participants was Annie Smith St-Georges, an Algonquin elder who was visiting the Dish With One Spoon Territory that Ryerson is situated on.

“Apparently this guy (Ryerson) did a lot of good things for Canadians, but he did not do any good for the Indigenous People,” she said.

Sept. 30 was chosen because it is the time of year when children were taken from their homes to residential schools.

Coty Zachariah, a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, said, “It’s very important for the community to come together. A lot of people are hurting, a lot of people carry that intergenerational trauma, but there are also intergenerational survivors.”  

Zachariah, who is the national chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, the RSU’s parent organization, said he wanted to show his support to the students, the community and their families by attending the vigil.

“When those children were taken away it wasn’t just one generation that was impacted, it was their future children and their children’s children who suffered from loss of culture, loss of language and abuses,” he said.

In 2008, Smith St-Georges accepted the apology from former prime minister Stephen Harper for the state’s role in establishing residential schools. She was also involved in the opening and the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC views reconciliation as an ongoing process to learn the truth about residential schools and ensure all Canadians know that history.

Smith St-Georges said there is still work to be done. She explained that Canada needs to rewrite its history books so that it speaks the truth of Indigenous People in this country.

“The whole idea of residential schools was to kill the Indian in us, that we were savages and we were to be destroyed,” Smith St-Georges said.

She said she is not arguing for the removal of the statue, but supports the idea of a plaque that acknowledges Ryerson’s role in the residential school system.

Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi has said the university plans to place just such a plaque near the statue.

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