Residential school survivors stand in a circle inside the Ndılǫ gym on September 30, 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Several survivors of residential schools wept as they formed a circle during a ceremony to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Ndılǫ.
Around 30 people identifying as survivors rose to form the circle ahead of a period of silence to honour those who came home from the schools, and those who did not.
One woman, embracing her husband as he stood with fellow survivors, thanked her for teaching her about what he and others had endured at residential schools.
Another man, taking a folded piece of paper from his pocket, opened it to reveal a photo of himself as a child, smiling alongside other members of a Fort Resolution residential school’s hockey team in the early 1950s.
“They made us smile,” he said.
Earlier, around 200 people attended a feeding-the-fire ceremony outside the Ndılǫ gym, organized by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, to mark Saturday’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Chief Fred Sangris of Ndılǫ described his own residential school experience as the ceremony began.
“Number 32. That’s who I was,” he said.
“My name is very simple: Fred Sangris. But at residential school, they give you a number.
“We were not living in a zoo, or cages.”
Chief Ernest Betsina of Dettah said: “Young kids cannot forget what their parents and grandparents went through, their stories. We cannot forget the past. It’s important that we talk about it, and not hold it inside of you.”
Premier Caroline Cochrane and Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty were among Saturday afternoon’s attendees.
Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine told those gathered: “It’s important to acknowledge that we’re all in this together.”
A feast and drum dance rounded out the afternoon’s schedule in Ndılǫ. Events were being held across the Northwest Territories at the same time, while schools and other organizations held gatherings during the week leading up to Saturday.
This is the second year since the NWT government formalized its recognition of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which forms an evolution of Orange Shirt Day.
The first Orange Shirt Day was created in 2013 by Phyllis Jack Webstad. Her memory of arriving at a residential school in 1973 was being stripped of her clothes and, most painfully, a brand new orange shirt given to her by her grandmother.
Declaring a national day is a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 80th call to action, which urged the federal government to institute such a day.
“The younger generations are going to learn from all this. They are watching, they will learn the truth of the way it happened,” Chief Sangris said on Saturday.