Many in Port Dover marked Canada Day with expressions of solidarity with the country’s Indigenous peoples.
The cancellation of the town’s famous Callithumpian parade and numerous other Canada Day events due to COVID-19 left many in Port Dover in a reflective mood.
Orange T-shirts and signage were in abundance acknowledging that First Nations are grieving as the extent of abuse and loss related to Canada’s residential school past begins to sink in.
Dr. John Hall and his wife, Pat, posted a sign above the front door of their Main Street home welcoming Canada’s increasing awareness of how badly Indigenous children were treated in the residential school system, which was finally shut down in the 1990s after more than 100 years of operation.
The sign was framed by two antique cradleboards, which were appropriately empty, signifying the the Indigenous children who never returned home. Many were buried and forgotten in unmarked graves.
“I still think Canada is a wonderful country,” Pat Hall said. “We’re lucky to live here. But I’m not surprised by these findings. Atrocities involving children have happened everywhere, but this is our home.
“I feel sad. Today is an empty celebration. This year, I don’t really feel like celebrating July 1st. But I do want to see my family and friends.”
Jannette Matheson of Port Dover was shaken by the news that many Indigenous children who died at residential schools were not returned to their families. In some cases, Indigenous families never learned the fate of their children, with school authorities frequently saying they ran away and could not be located.
Instead of bottling up her grief, Matheson opted to arrange for the collection of new shoes for children at Knox Presbyterian Church on Chapman Street West. By late afternoon Canada Day, she had collected more than 50 pairs. She will deliver them to a social service agency on Six Nations of Grand River for distribution to the community.
“I’m proud to be Canadian,” Matheson said. “I’m proud of Canada. But news of the residential schools is heartbreaking. I still feel like celebrating, so this is my way of doing so – helping and giving back to a nation that is grieving.”
News of the unmarked, abandoned graves at residential school sites was not totally unexpected. Many survivors of the residential school system testified about the deaths and burials several years ago to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The discovery, however, of unmarked, undocumented graves has left many reassessing Canada’s past.
Gator BBQ of Simcoe was open for business in Port Dover on July 1. Employee Adam Oakes of Paris said many Gator employees are aware of this dark history thanks to a colleague who passed through the residential school system, whose operation was entrusted to religious orders.
“I’ve known about it for a few years now,” Oakes said. “One of our employees from out west went through the residential school system and he told us how horrible it was. He told us how they were fed once a day, lived in crowded conditions, how dirty it was with one shower a week – that sort of thing.
“He suffered a lot of issues because of it with substance abuse and everything else that goes with that.”
While most all festivities in Port Dover were cancelled due to COVID-19, the day did end with a round of fireworks over the waterfront after sundown courtesy of the Port Dover Lions Club.