The first National Truth and Reconciliation Day program on Six Nations of the Grand River wasn’t the big celebration the community would have preferred but it was a start.
A move to tighter pandemic restrictions due to a surge of COVID-19 cases meant participants had to be spaced out for a candlelight vigil at Chiefswood Park that started late Thursday afternoon and continued into the early evening. They wore masks, kept mainly to family groups and came and went during a three-hour window to avoid crowding.
They created a giant heart of luminaries honouring those who attended the former Mohawk Institute residential school in Brantford and other residential schools across the country.
Wilma Fraser, 87, moving slowly with a cane, said luminaries were lit for her relatives.
“It helps to see people celebrating Truth and Reconciliation Day,” said Fraser, who was brought to the event by younger sister, Penny Hill.
Their sister, Lillian, was sent to the school. And so were Fraser’s nephew and mother-in-law.
“We came because of our loved ones who were there.”
While pleased to see the day declared a national holiday, some were disappointment that Ontario opted to not make it a public holiday.
Long-time Six Nations Coun. Helen Miller noted that, despite Ontario’s move, a number of businesses closed to recognize the day.
“We don’t need the government to make it a … holiday,” she said. “We can do it ourselves.”
She said the day is a good idea so survivors know that people are starting to do something.
“They kept quiet for so long and didn’t talk about it and now are finally getting to tell their stories.”
And progress is being made on a search for possible graves on the site of the Mohawk Institute, with work likely to begin this month using ground-penetrating radar.
“I’m sure there are graves there,” said Miller.
“A lot of people want to hurry this up but we want to ensure it’s done right. It’s going to take a long time but at least we’re doing it.”
Six Nations elected Chief Mark Hill acknowledged the frustration of residential school survivors.
“This is going to be a tough and dark journey as we get into the beginning stages of the search but we have to do it and have to do it right. We can’t have real reconciliation unless we know the truth.”
Hill said the work of “getting every child home,” even in the form of finding a grave, is important.
Six Nations has opted to open a criminal investigation into reported deaths at the Mohawk Institute and has established an independent survivors’ secretariat to deal with uncovering, documenting and sharing the truth about what happened there.
The chief said many people don’t believe they will see justice done despite such an investigation.
“To me, justice comes in many shapes and forms,” Hill said.
“For me, it could be to get every reserve in Canada access to clean drinking water or having our young people in proper schools. We have students on Six Nations who are going to school on the top of an arena. We need a level playing field.
“So justice would be having both levels of government come to the table and, for once, actually mean what they say.”
He also noted that the pandemic, which has hit Six Nations hard with 667 cases and 13 COVID deaths in a population of less than 13,000, has amplified the mental-health issues of residential school survivors.
“We’ve had a horrific time with COVID but to see the community come together during important times like this is inspiring to me,” Hill said.