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A small gathering at Pioneer Park on a crisp, overcast Friday morning (June 11) quickly grew to hundreds.
People young and old, many in masks to adhere to pandemic protocols, filled Pioneer Park east of downtown in a sea of orange and purple shirts, showing support for survivors of residential schools and those who did not make it home.
The Adams Lake Indian Band paid tribute to the students of the residential school system with the first leg of its Walking Our Spirits Home event — a three-day walk from Kamloops to Chase that began with a walk from the park to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Powwow Arbour.
It comes on the heels of Tk’emlups announcing it had discovered the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School using ground-penetrating radar, though the Walking Our Spirits Home event had previously been planned.
The smell of fragrant smoke drifted through the air, along with the resonant sound of rawhide drums as people gathered in a circle some 50 metres wide before crossing the Red Bridge.
A few tears could be seen amongst those in the crowd. Some hugged, sang, danced and wafted themselves as part of a cleansing smudge. Many carried walking sticks wrapped with orange ribbon, which one elder described would wake the spirits when tapped gently on the ground while traversing the bridge.
The ceremony began with prayers and speeches. Ahead of the walk, many took offerings of tobacco and sprinkled the dried leaves on the waters off the shore of the South Thompson River as a tribute. Some wore the names of those they were honouring on their shirts and signs.
Everybody KTW spoke with had someone in their lives who experienced residential schools.
“I’m out here to show my support for the elders. Let the elders know the younger generation is here to support them and help them on their healing journeys,” said Dustin Tomma who attended the event with six-year-old daughter, Harmony.
He said he brought his daughter to the walk to ensure she is included in their ceremonies and understands her history.
The 38-year-old father and fifth generation Squilax man participated in drumming at the event, which meant a lot to him given the family members he has who went through residential school.
“I’m here walking for my grandparents,” Tomma said.
MJ Johnson, an Aboriginal education worker for School District 73, attended to show her support as an Indigenous person, noting her mother attended residential school near Vanderhoof. Johnson said she wasn’t surprised to hear of the remains of the children found at Tk’emlups, but hopes it will validate stories of abuse from other residential school survivors and push Canada, as a country, forward on reconciliation.
Mike Arnouse, an Indigenous elder from Adams Lake in his 70s who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, described the walk as a restorative effort.
“That’s where they tried to get rid of the culture … it didn’t work,” Arnouse said, noting Indigenous people are healing.
The large crowd made its way over the Red Bridge — which was temporarily closed to accommodate the walk — and to the Powwow Arbour about four kilometres away, where the thunderous noise of collective drumming could be heard.
“We have a long journey ahead of us to right the wrongs”
Secwépemc chiefs addressed the crowd at the Powwow Arbour and called for healing.
Wayne Christian, tribal chief of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council, asked survivors of residential schools to allow others to help them carry the burden.
“Pass it on to us,” he said.
He told the crowd to understand the significance of the discovery at Tk’emlups.
“The world, prior to this, really didn’t understand what all our survivors were talking about — they didn’t believe them,” Christian said. “These children showed the truth.”
He also asked the crowd to pray that the Tk’emlups band gets everything it needs amidst the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves.
“A forensic anthropologist, an international legal team — everything,” he said.
Adams Lake Indian Band Chief Cliff Arnouse said there is research to be done and a long journey ahead to right the wrongs of the residential school system.
“We want to make sure the ones that survived, the ones that left a piece of themselves here, the ones left in graves here, are brought home,” he said. “We need to heal.”
Tk’emlups Chief Rosanne Casimir said she was honoured to join the walk, adding they are collectively grieving the discovery while also reflecting on their own family stories.
“People are now coming to terms with how the past haunts so many of us,” Casimir said.
Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian also addressed the crowd, noting he has experienced an outpouring of emotions from citizens, noting there are some 7,000 Indigenous people living in the City of Kamloops, along with many Catholics, all of whom are hurting.
Christian said as the weeks and months go by, the truth of what happened at Tk’emlups will be revealed, but added “the reconciliation will take a great deal more time.”
The mayor said he is committed to that work and hopes the weekend trek will bring healing and solace.