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Sacred fire will offer space to process, grieve

Lighting of sacred fire at former St. Joseph's Indian Residential School one way Thunder Bay community honouring Kamloops residential school victims.
St Josephs memorial
Children's shoes and a message were left at the St. Joseph's Indian Residential School memorial, near where the sacred fire will be held. (Brianne Foley, TBT News)

THUNDER BAY – A sacred fire will be lit at the site of the former St. Joseph's Indian Residential School in Thunder Bay, as community members look to honour the hundreds of children discovered in an unmarked grave at a British Columbia residential school.

The fire will be lit on Monday at 3 p.m. and burn for four days on the grounds of what is now the Pope John Paul II school, said Nishnawbe Naski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

“It’s very important that we do this to provide a forum where people can come and express their grief – their emotions, their anger, whatever they need to process,” he said. “I think everyone is horrified by what we learned this week. I think everyone is impacted.”

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation revealed Thursday that the remains of 215 children had been discovered buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated between 1890 and 1969.

Fiddler said the revelation has unearthed trauma for Indigenous people across the country who have been similarly impacted by residential schools.

“We know that there are other gravesites out there that are unmarked,” he said.

Everyone is welcome to offer prayers and tobacco at the sacred fire, NAN said Sunday. Anyone who attends is urged to follow public health guidelines.

Masking will be encouraged (and mandatory in the teepee), while Fiddler said the Pope John Paul II grounds are large enough to allow distancing.

“We know there are COVID measures in place,” he said. “We also know this is an important thing to do.”

Community members will set up 215 pairs of children’s shoes at the site to symbolize the loss.

On Facebook, the Kinna-Aweya Legal Clinic invited supporters to drop off shoes at the clinic at 86 South Cumberland Street before 9:30 a.m. Monday.

A ceremony will also take place outside of the Underground Gym on Monday morning.

Founder Peter Panetta said he was approached by several people who had been impacted by residential schools and others who felt they needed to honour the children.

The organization will hold a small ceremony at 10 a.m. in front of its Victoria Avenue location, and is also planning a display of 215 shoes, a symbolic representation seen in communities across the country in recent days.

Panetta invites community members to drop off children’s shoes at the Underground Gym by 3 p.m. on Monday. They will later be donated to children in need, he said.

NAN also encouraged the wearing of orange on Monday to honour children who died in residential schools, a call echoed by Lakehead Public Schools on Sunday.

The City of Thunder Bay joined the federal government and other organizations in lowering its flags to half-mast beginning on Monday.

It’s important to provide space to honour those lost and process emotions, said Fiddler, but it will be equally important to turn to action afterwards.

“It should not end there after the four days [of the sacred fire],” he said. “There’s still so much work to be done.”

The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provide a roadmap, he said.

Those impacted by residential schools can access support by calling the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or NAN Hope at 1-844-626-4673, NAN said.

The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is also available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.