Some 18 years ago, St. Albert’s last residential school burned to the ground.
The Edmonton Indian Residential School closed some 50 years ago on June 30 just outside St. Albert where Poundmaker’s Lodge is today. On July 16, 2000, the school’s main building was destroyed by fire.
It was a place where Indigenous children experienced physical, mental, spiritual and sexual abuse, said Jean Aquash, who attended a residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., for eight years in the 1930s. She went to the school site the day after the fire because she wanted to see how she felt on seeing it.
“I’d never been so happy in my whole life,” she said.
Aquash, 84, was one of about a hundred people who walked through downtown Edmonton Wednesday as part of the inaugural Walking On Common Ground Reconciliation Walk, held in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Edmonton school.
It was a joyous affair full of smiles, flags, cheers, drum-songs, war-whoops, and air horns as the crowd of all nations migrated from Canada Place along Jasper Avenue to the Alberta Legislature.
“That road we walked today was a beautiful road,” said Brad Cardinal of Poundmaker’s Lodge, one of the walk’s organizers, addressing the crowd at the legislature – the red road of healing.
Healing means reaching out to others in a fair and equitable way, and Cardinal said he saw that happening during the walk.
“Let’s continue this year after year. Let’s continue walking on common ground for a healthier place.”
Voices from the walk
Jesse Edgington of the Christian Reformed Church was one the many participants in Wednesday’s walk, and the one who initiated it.
“I had read a story about a group in British Columbia who was doing reconciliation walks,” said the Edmontonian, and he thought it was a great idea.
In researching residential schools here, he learned that 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Edmonton school. That led him to team up with the Edmonton Native Healing Centre and Poundmaker’s to organize the walk.
This walk was a way to affect reconciliation with your feet, Edgington said.
“It’s a way for us to have an act of renewal but also an act of restoration.”
Edgington said he was amazed by the turnout for the walk and excited to see people from all walks of life come together.
Some, like Sucker Creek First Nation member Noella Willier, are survivors of the residential school system. She spoke of being terrified of the stern-faced nuns, and being constantly hungry due to the terrible food.
“We were little slaves to the nuns and the priests,” she said, and were made to do all the cooking and cleaning.
“I remember as a little girl, probably eight or nine, having to peel tonnes and tonnes of potatoes.”
Aquash, a spiritual adviser at Poundmaker’s, said she wasn’t able to go home from school until she was 15 because her family didn’t have a car. Once there, she no longer spoke her native language, and felt like a stranger in her home community.
“You lost your connection to your family. I didn’t get to know my grandparents because they passed on before I got home,” she said.
“Everything I was, it was erased.”
Others were relatives of school survivors.
Onion Lake’s Sonya Desjarlais-Pahtaykee was walking arms-linked with her fellow summer school students from NorQuest College to honour missing and murdered Indigenous peoples. She said her grandmother often told her about her time in the residential schools.
“She said she was scared to be herself, and she was discriminated against by (those) of her own culture.”
Some, like retired King’s University instructor Melle Huizinga, felt it was their duty to walk.
“I’m here because I’m a Canadian,” he said, and because Canadians need to honour the treaties and work towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“This is not their issue, their problem. It is ours as Canadians. Being treaty people, we all share in the problems and injustices that come out of residential schools.”
Canadians who didn’t attend residential schools can help by following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and forging relationships with their Indigenous brothers and sisters, Edgington said. He hoped this walk would become a regular event, as one event would not make up for the centuries of missteps, pain, and abuse made in Canada’s Indigenous relationship.
Change begins by showing respect and understanding for others and reaching out to those in need, Willier said.
“I need to understand you, you need to understand me, and then we can go walk together towards common ground to help each other.”