Hundreds of people gathered at Kelowna’s City Park Friday afternoon (June 4) to honour the lives of the 215 Indigenous children whose remains were discovered last week in an unmarked grave on the former grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The event was organized by the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society, which saw several Elders and residential school survivors speak before the crowd. Smudging was offered, and drum songs and round dances were performed throughout the two-hour tribute.
Edna Terbasket, the society’s executive director, said that when the news broke about the discovery of the bodies, she knew she needed to do something.
“I’ve been thinking about it over the weekend — it was bothering me, heaviness on me — and I thought we need to do something,” said Terbasket.
“We needed to do something here in Kelowna for our urban Indigenous population because we have a high urban Indigenous population. I wanted to think about them and offer support and help them in a good way.”
Free food and water were distributed to battle the sweltering heat. Free orange shirts were also handed out in honour of Phyllis Jack Webstad, a Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation Elder in Williams Lake, B.C. The orange shirt has become a symbol that honours victims of residential schools, influenced by Webstad’s own first day at residential school in 1973 when she was six.
“When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again,” Webstad said on the Orange Shirt Day website.
“The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying, and no one cared.”
In addition to supporting the local Indigenous population, Terbasket said that the event was a celebration of life for the 215 children and their families.
“Their parents waited and waited forever for their babies to come home,” said Terbasket. “You think of their moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, aunties and uncles, sisters and brothers — it’s horrible. It’s not acceptable.”
The whole week, she continued, has been very overwhelming.
“We had a couple of losses. We had a young woman; she OD’d Tuesday night. She was a residential school survivor,” she said. “They wonder why our people have so many issues with alcoholism, with drugs. It’s that intergenerational trauma.”
For Canada to move towards a path of truth and reconciliation, she said that change needs to come from the church, communities and all levels of government.
“We want to see real truth and reconciliation. We want to see honesty and integrity,” she said. “We’re not going to let it be swept under the rug anymore. It’s too late.”
The Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society is organizing a similar event on June 14 at 9 a.m. near the Parkinson Recreation Centre, where crosses will be placed along the pedestrian overpass.