At the Circle of Indigenous Nations Society (COINS) in Castlegar, Indigenous Peoples Day usually includes a celebration and a large gathering. But the tone this year was notably more somber as participants honoured the 215 children whose remains were found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Across Canada, First Nations communities marked Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday in many different ways. Some chose not to acknowledge the day at all.
But Castlegar elders and COINS staff decided that what their people needed was to be able to gather together for collective prayer.
“We really wanted to offer space for intentional prayer for the children of residential schools that have been found, and for those that still need to be found,” said COINS family connection co-ordinator Jessica Macleod.
COINS executive director Kris Salikin says this year focused on honouring, acknowledging and praying rather than celebrating and sharing culture.
A sacred fire burning inside a tipi was fed with cedar, tobacco, sage and those prayers. An altar was placed nearby and people brought shoes, toys and other tokens to remember the children.
COVID protocols were in place around the gathering, which also affected both the scale and manner of the event. Participants were asked to walk through the stations set up around the property and then leave once they were done in order to manage crowd limits and spacing.
“We have been separated for more than a year now and to come together in collective prayer is strong,” said Macleod.
Macleod and Salikin say what they need right now is compassion and understanding.
“If there ever was a time for reconciliation — I would ask our community to consider what they need to do to move towards it,” said Macleod.
“Our people are really affected right now and some of our hearts are really heavy,” added Salikin.
She says open hearts and open minds can be the first step.
But amidst the sorrow, there were still bits of joy as people who had not been able to spend time together due to the pandemic got to see each other’s eyes, even if their smiles were still hidden behind masks.