Warning: The following report contains descriptions of genocide and violence committed against Indigenous children and communities. If you require support, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day by calling 1-866-925-4419, the NWT Help Line at 1-800-661-0844, or the Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310.
A memorial walk honouring the 215 Indigenous children recently found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School drew hundreds of people to the streets of Yellowknife Friday afternoon.
The event, organized and led by the Dene Nation, began at the former Akaitcho Hall site and stopped at both the city’s Catholic and Anglican churches before finishing in Somba K’e Park with a fire-feeding and drum-dancing ceremony.
“As individuals, we’ve been impacted right to the core of our soul, and it’s painful sometimes. But…we got strong blood because we got Dene blood that runs in our veins,” Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya told the crowd at the park.
A number of Dene chiefs, Elders, and former residential school students from across the territory shared their stories through a megaphone while offering words of strength, hope, and perseverance.
Dëneze Nahkehk’o, a Yellowknife resident and Dehcho Denesųłıné Dene community educator, was one of the leaders of Friday’s march.
He spoke to the need for immediate action from those in positions of power.
“The time is coming when the truth will come out, and justice has to be served,” he said.
“A mass grave is a crime scene. That means a crime was committed. If a crime was committed, that means there’s people responsible and those people responsible have to face justice.”
Federal, provincial, and territorial governments across Canada have faced repeated calls to help identify the children found in BC, and to investigate other former residential school sites.
In the NWT Legislative Assembly on Monday, Premier Caroline Cochrane – who was present at Friday’s march alongside several other members of the legislature – committed to supporting Indigenous communities in the territory who wish to pursue such work.
Snookie Catholique, a former residential school student, told the story of her late aunt who was taken by the system.
“For years mother cried with her nightmares, because all she remembered was the last cries of her sister before the doors slammed forever behind her and she was never seen again,” Catholique said.
“I believe today that she is smiling in the spirit world, dancing and holding hands with the relatives that have gone before us.”
Sahtu Dene Elder Paul Andrews spoke passionately outside of the Co-Cathedral of St. Patrick.
“I look around and I see the little ones, and I can’t help but think I was that young when I was taken,” he said. “I can’t help but think that there were others who were younger when they were taken.
“No children ever again should be separated from their family. No children should be ever separated from their mother, especially.”
Calling the Dene “survivors,” Andrews reminded those in the crowd that there is no shame in seeking support when its needed.
“We’re going be there for you,” he said. “We’re going to help you. We’re going help each other.
“We’re not going to criticize you, we’re going to do our best to love you just the way you are and we’re going to help you to be the best Dene, the best Indigenous people, the best Canadian possible, and we’re going help you do that whether we are Indigenous or not.
“We’re going to help you be proud of the people we come from.”