STRAIT AREA: As the remains of 1,287 children and counting have been discovered in unmarked burials from only four former residential school sites in Canada, 135 more locations need to searched – including one in Nova Scotia.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs gathered last week to listen to the announcement from Saskatchewan made by Cowessess First Nation and they indicated their hearts ache for their Indigenous sisters and brothers and for all residential school survivors across this country.

“Today we heard more difficult, but not surprising news, “ the assembly said.

Commenting on the post was Chelsey Ochoa, a band member of Cowessess First Nation.

“I visit Nova Scotia frequently and to hear that we’re heard from coast to coast, heard in countries all over the world, it’s bringing awareness to generational trauma and unfortunately a genocide that needs to be acknowledged as a genocide,” she said.

The recent discovery of 751 unmarked burials at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan adds to the already discovered 215 remains at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, 104 discovered at the Brandon Indian Residential School in Brandon, Man., and 35 at the Muscowequan Indian Residential School near Lestock, Sask.

On June 30, the community of ʔaq’am, one of four bands in the Ktunaxa Nation near the city of Cranbrook, B.C., used ground-penetrating radar to search a site close to the former St. Eugene’s Mission School and said 182 unmarked grave sites were discovered.

St. Eugene’s Mission School was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s. The Lower Kootenay Band said up to 100 of its members were forced to attend the school. 

“These are not just numbers. These are our children,” We’koqma’q First Nation said in a Facebook post on June 24. “Our hearts are deeply saddened and with the families of Cowessess First Nation, and all Indigenous communities across Canada, especially our Mi’kmaw friends and family.”

Mi’kmaq artist Whitney Gould of We’koqma’q created a piece entitled “They found us…” which shows the silhouette of a young person with shoulder-length hair whispering into the ear of another child with two long braids that fall down their back, smoke clouds float over their heads, as an eagle soars through the red-yellow sky.

“Our hearts are heavy on hearing of yet more discoveries in Saskatchewan. Sadly, we know this is not the end,” Gould said. “Somehow, we must find a way to begin again and do better. Only love will guide us through this time.”

With strong ties to their neighbours in Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation, StFX University’s president advised he was struggling to articulate the feelings and emotions he had concerning news about the discovery of 751 unmarked graves.

“We know that oppression and racism continue to blight our society. It’s our responsibility, both at an individual and community level, to respond with action,” Andy Hakin said in a statement to the campus community. “I ask you to learn more about systemic racism, what it means and how to recognize it, and to provide your support and energy to those working toward making StFX a more inclusive and equitable university.”

Hakin advised by acting together, Canadians can help those who have been, and continue to be, marginalized within their campus borders and the broader community.

“The need for positive change has once again been horribly amplified through tragedy. We have work to do,” he said. “Work that because of the role our university plays in society, will influence our communities for years to come.”

In light of the recent discoveries, Indigenous people across the country are calling on villages, towns, and major city centres to scale back or cancel Canada Day celebrations as the nation “was built on genocide” and they continue to grieve, what will amount to thousands of children who never came home from residential schools.

Richmond Warden Amanda Mombourquette said she had “an initial conversation” with Potlotek Chief Wilburt Marshall where they discussed a land recognition statement, the National Day of Mourning, the Truth and Reconciliation process, and a possible presentation to council by Potlotek First Nation officials.

While they didn’t get into further details, the warden said Potlotek Band Council met on June 29 to discuss the items that arose during her conversation with Marshall.

Mombourquette said the municipality will not host any Canada Day events and has sought Marshall’s guidance on this issue.

“The county has no events planned, per se, that we do directly,” she told council. “I know other municipalities have gone ahead and cancelled their Canada Day events.”

The Town of Mulgrave has also decided to cancel its Canada Day festivities for a Day of Reflection, while in the Town of Port Hawkesbury, they have designated July 1 as a Day of Reflection to support Unama’ki (Cape Breton) and Mi’kma’ki (Unceded territory of the Mi’kmaw) communities.

On June 15, at a special public meeting, council approved the installation of a fourth flag pole for the sole purpose of flying the Mi’kmaq flag permanently in Port Hawkesbury as a way to honour International Indigenous Peoples Day and the Mi’kmaq Nation.

In a subsequent emergency meeting on June 27, council met to discuss how best to proceed with their Canada Day plans, in response of the almost 1,000 unmarked burials being found in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Council passed a motion to cancel all Canada Day activities and to invite citizens of the town to observe a Day of Reflection. Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton said her heart goes out to Indigenous people all across the country and especially in Mi’kma’ki.

Additionally, council approved that the Mi’kmaq flag be raised first thing in the morning on June 28, and that all flags to be lowered to half-mast until the last day of July to honour the memories of all Indigenous children and adults buried in mass unmarked graves.

“I’ve reached out to friends and community leaders in neighbouring Unama’ki communities for feedback about how Port Hawkesbury can support and acknowledge First Nation communities during this difficult time,” Chisholm-Beaton said. “We will use this feedback to guide our way forward, because the gravity and breadth of the Truth and Reconciliation work we need to do as an island, as a province, and as a country will not be accomplished by a simple observance or action on July 1.”

She vowed to continue to work with neighbouring First Nation Mi’kmaq communities.

“We will continue to work with Unama’ki community leaders to plan and host a ceremony in Port Hawkesbury this summer that will provide an opportunity to listen, learn, and reach a better understanding about the impact of residential schools,” Chisholm-Beaton said. “To honour the memory of residential school victims, and to come together to learn from residential school survivors and elders through the sharing of stories and prayers.”

The mayor said another recommendation was to host a Blanket Exercise. A Blanket Exercise is an impactful educational tool which allows all participants to actively learn about the history of First Nations people and to engage on both emotional and intellectual levels, with First Nation facilitators and guides.

“Our council is committed to continuing this journey of learning, support and allyship with Mi’kma’ki communities, and I know many citizens from Port Hawkesbury are committed as well,” Chisholm-Beaton said. “We stand with the communities of Unama’ki and Mi’kma’ki during this difficult time, and with open hearts and minds, we will continue to seek the wisdom of Mi’kmaq First Nation community leaders to guide our way forward.”

When Tareq Hadhad, the founder and CEO of the Antigonish-based Peace by Chocolate, first came to Canada a few years ago, he had a mission to ensure his Canadian brothers and sisters connect to their fight for peace as war survivors.

“Then I realized that peace in Canada is not only the absence of war but it is societal friendship and harmony which starts with true reconciliation and awareness of our hard realities,” he said in a statement. “A lot can, should and need to be done including righting what is taking place today in Indigenous communities with correction of the lack of clean water, fighting for justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, taking actions on inequality and lower income levels, and higher rates of unemployment.”

For those reasons, Hadhad, who is one of the proudest Canadians won’t be celebrating Canada Day on July 1, and will take time to learn more about the history, he will wear an orange shirt and he will work to make Canada better with knowledge of the past and present.

“I believe in us, Canadians, to do the right thing,” he said. “Let July 1 this year be the day of listening, learning, grieving and reflection.”