In winter 2015, residential school survivor and cultural support worker Tom Roberts of Lac La Ronge Indian Band approached his elders with an idea he had been formulating since summer time.
“We never came home… I want to walk from Prince Albert (where the school is) to La Ronge, so I can be home on my own terms,” Roberts said. “We were forcefully taken away, and some have never been able to go home. I wanted to organize something to help in the recovery process, to take the anger away when we talk about this.”
The response was positive from Prince Albert elder Howard Walker: “Now, there is no one to tell you that you cannot do this,” he said.
Starting on National Aboriginal Day, June 21, a group of residential school survivors will depart from the Senator Allan Bird Center on Prince Albert Grand Council and end in up in La Ronge on June 25. A smaller group will continue the trek from La Ronge to Stanley Mission where a welcome feast and festivities will conclude the epic journey.
This walk is significant because it will mark the first time a group of survivors will leave the buildings which housed them as “the Indian was killed in the child” as Sir John A. McDonald not so eloquently put it over a century ago. While many memorial and commemorative walks have been hosted across the province and country, none have left the doors of a former school building.
“It’s sad, what has happened. We can’t erase the past, but we can help fix the damage that’s been done,” Roberts said. “It is going to be an emotional walk, but it will be a happy walk.”
Roberts knows all too well the damages caused by residential schools. He himself left the system at 16, when students can choose to attend or not, almost exactly 50 years ago. He currently works as a residential school support program worker for the La Ronge Indian Band.
“It not only damaged the generation who attended schools. It has also affected our youth today; there is a cultural disconnect between our youth and elders. I have been told before, ‘I can’t understand my grandchildren anymore, they only speak in English,’” Roberts said.
This walk however is not about reflecting on the damages caused by residential schools. This walk is about survivors going home, and doing so of their own accord. June 21 was not just selected because it is National Aboriginal Day, it is also around the time of year when residential schools sent children home for the summer time.
“In June, we would all go home. When we got there, there would be a welcoming celebration with dancers and jiggers and fiddles and a feast,” Roberts said.
He hopes to capture this same feeling of happiness and joy when the survivors return to Stanley Mission. A welcome feast has been organized for those walkers making the last stretch of their trek, including story-telling and entertainment organized by the community of Stanley Mission.
The night before the walk kicks off, participants will gather at the Allan Bird Memorial Center to trade stories both good and bad about the residential school experience. Many negative experiences have been documented, but not many people get to reflect on what few fun times there were at the schools.
“Not many people talk about all the times where we would cause trouble. It was fun, being told not to do something and then doing it. I think many people have buried those memories in all the negative,” Roberts said.
In the spirit of reconciliation, everyone in the community is welcome to attend the celebrations before the walk commences, and again at its conclusion in La Ronge. As the walk commences on National Aboriginal Day, those who wish to attend the Kinsmen Park celebrations can catch a ride from the ceremony at Senator Allan Bird memorial centre to Kinsmen Park, and then on to Little Red River Park. The walk will start at noon at the Allan Bird Center on June 21, and will make stops in Little Red River Park, Montreal Lake campground, Weyakwin, Montreal River, La Ronge before finishing in Stanley Mission.
As this walk was organized by the survivors of the residential school, they asked Roberts to lead the procession instead of chiefs and political figures. The younger generation will walk between the survivors, chief and council members. People with questions about participation have come from as far away as Regina, according to Roberts. Members of First Nations communities across North Saskatchewan will be walking in memory of those who did not survive, and those who have survived the residential school system.
Residential schools officially closed in 1996 – the same year the school in Prince Albert shut its doors, making it one of the last to do so in Canada. People from across Manitoba and Saskatchewan attended the Prince Albert Indian Residential School between 1951 and 1996. An old military base was converted into the school, making it unique in the sense that it wasn’t a single building like many others are. Old barracks were converted into residential areas and classrooms, while boys and girls attended classes separately. Today, what is left has been turned into the Prince Albert Grand Council buildings, used by First Nation groups all across Northern Saskatchewan.
on Twitter @BryanEneas
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