Even before a vigil for residential school victims and survivors in Langley on Friday, residents were arriving to walk and learn the history of how Indigenous children were taken from their homes.
Organized by the Lower Fraser Valley Aboriginal Society (LFVAS), the event included a walk through the Derek Doubleday Arboretum on Fraser Highway, with a ceremony at 7 p.m. that evening.
Signs and information on reconciliation and residential schools were placed alongside the one-kilometre length of the path, along with 215 solar lights, one for each grave located on the former school site, said Katie Pearson, CEO of the LFVAS. The display will stay up for two weeks after the vigil June 11.
At the site during set up on Friday afternoon, Pearson said there have already been a significant number of people coming by, asking questions, and looking at the display of 215 miniature orange T-shirts near the interpretative centre.
“Lots of tears,” Pearson said of reactions. “Lots of gratitude for having the opportunity to take part in a walk like this.”
The event is part of a healing journey for many people, said Cecelia Reekie, whose own father was sent to residential schools as a child. The first Indigenous Canadian elected to office in Langley, Reekie has spoken about her family’s experiences with the schools.
About 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to residential schools between the late 19th and late 20th century. There were more than 130 residential schools in Canada.
Thank you to all who attended the candlelight vigil last night, standing together is so much better than standing alone! #Truth
— Cecelia Reekie (@cecelia_reekie) June 12, 2021
Reekie said the vigil was for people of all races and faiths.
One of those who came to walk the trail and read the information along the route was Marsha Miller.
“I just feel it affects all of us as Canadians, and we should pay our respects to the families and the children,” Miller said. “And we should not forget that there’s still work to be done.”
That evening, various people spoke. A women’s drumming group offered songs, including a version of Amazing Grace in a local First Nations language.
With nearby flags at half mast, people created a sea of orange clothing as they gathered to honour the 215 dead children.
John Johnstone, with the Lower Fraser Valley Aboriginal Society, said there’s more work to be done.
People do not honour the 215 dead children, “if all that happens is that we upset the communities again,” Johnstone said. “I would ask that we look to our past and understand it and know it well so that we might be able to take a good step forward.”
Elder Cheryl Gabriel encouraged people to have empathy towards each other.
“Don’t give up. Help the other person that needs help right now. There’s a lot of people suffering in darkness,” Gabriel said.
And for those who are struggling right now, she offered compassion.
“Never forget who you are,” she said.
The residential school system continues to affect Indigenous people and their descendants, and many are working to understand and process what’s happening. Gabriel asked people not to let despair be the stopping point of reflection.
“I understand why my mom and dad were that way. I understand why my cousins were that way. I understand my uncles and my aunties. And guess what, it’s still happening,” Gabriel said. “We have to learn to understand and forgive. And work hard, always, for your good heart and your good mind.
“You need to do it so you can look at other people straight in the eyes and say, yes I’m here,” Gabriel said.
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