There was a moment at the Wake the Giant music festival last weekend when light, love and unity reigned in a city of deep racial divisions.
Anishinabe’s jingle dress dancers worked their way into a crowd of about 3,000 music fans trying to form a huge circle. Most of the dancers were from Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC) High School, an institution for Indigenous students located in Thunder Bay, administered by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and serving 20 communities in northwestern Ontario.
Protected and led into the field by their teachers, they moved to the perfect beat for drums on stage, where Grammy Award-winning musician Northern Cree played in collaboration with Six Nations electronic pow-wow guru DJ Shub. The crowd was thick and chirpy, but it fell apart to let the traditionally dressed dancers go – their silver jingles sounded louder together to the beat.
Then, the concertgoers joined them in Round Dance, a traditional show of magic: unity and friendship.
That message was for the Wake the Giant program, first organized in 2019 by DFC faculty and students, to welcome First Nations youth to the large city of Thunder Bay in northern, fly-in communities. It’s an active pursuit of hope and change after all dark – a heroic act by the school, involving six of the seven fallen feathers, seven youths who died mysteriously in this city between 2000 and 2011.
For a brief moment, Round Dance exemplified what Thunder Bay and the rest of Canada could become: country bound by energetic love and promise, brought together by music.
So why can’t all of Canada take the lead in the DFC and join together to create a day of true and honest national reflection, thought and remembrance?
The genocide policies of this country resulted in the death of at least 6,000 children in Indian residential schools. Only now, as thousands of our children wait to be cured and brought home, is Canada really starting to accept the scope of what has happened here.
This year, September 30 will be the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and the federal statutory holiday every Canadian must observe. Wear an orange t-shirt to honor the survivors of those 139 so-called schools. Think about how Canada can make a difference. Reflect on how to bring lovely homes free of mold and with clean water and full fridges to all the First Nations communities that need them. Or high school, for that matter.
But we are here only to recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as it is up to each provincial and territorial government, as well as individual businesses, to decide whether it will be a true Pay Day. Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces that recognize the holiday, closing schools and government offices; Some municipalities across the country are also taking a holiday. But according to the provincial governments in populous Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, business will go on as usual, effective September 30.
The only citizens who would certainly have a day job are federal civil servants, including bureaucrats from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and Indigenous Services Canada, who keep the Racist Indian Act running. Meanwhile, survivors of the actual residential school may be forced to work, depending on where they live. To remind, the last school closed in 1996 – meaning there are survivors who are riding the bus and sitting in offices, daydreaming.
The NDP MPP Seoul Mamakawa, the only member of Ontario’s provincial legislature who attended residential school, is an example. He represents the riding of Kiewatinong in northwestern Ontario, which is home to several communities with boil-water advisories; Most First Nations here send their children to Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout for high school because there are no schools in their home communities.
On 14 September, Mr Mamakawa held a press conference, calling for 30 September a thoughtful day of contemplation. It fell on deaf ears. There has been no word of acknowledgment from the office of Premier Doug Ford.
Mr Mamkwa knows that moving away from our past is not the answer. This is an age-old way of thinking – one that has been hidden by generations of politicians.
“We must work together not to repeat the past,” he told me in an interview. “I hope this day can be one of education and ideas across Canada, so we can walk together towards a better future.”
I hope so too. I hope Canadian Dennis Franklin can see the youth of Cromarty High, and follow in his footsteps and support him to move forward.
Keep your opinion sharp and informed. Receive the Opinion newsletter. .