You can’t bury the past! North Central Regina described by Maclean's magazine was the worst neighbourhood in Canada.
Who would have thought. Here, within a modern, progressive Regina a small, only recently protected burial ground for First Nations children who died in residential school.
Forgotten children - buried away, anonymous
Community leaders, students and relatives go to the graveyard and put flowers and gifts for these children, cherish their memory, grieve their suffering and pray for them to have a better life in the afterlife. A First Nation survivor explained to us how horrific the life was in the residential school and how they were maltreated, and lost their families, culture and language. This place is adjacent to the site of a former school. I cannot imagine how First Nations children and adults feel when they walk past this simple burial ground which fails to recognize and acknowledge the past. Without the efforts of their relatives, siblings and friends they would be completely erase from the community. Recently, this land was designated an historical site so hopefully more will be done to mark the spot and move reconciliation forward.
For the First Nations tobacco is one of the four sacred medicines. A teacher gave us a cigarette to take apart so we could sprinkle the tobacco on the ground to show respect. They prayed for the souls of the children and asked for good fortune and protection for all those present. Although I did not understand all the symbolism, I felt a true and real connection between the children buried there, the elders and the environment. The residential school experience was no longer a few sentences in a lesson; rather, it was real a concrete and immediate experience that will not be forgotten by anyone there. I can relate the First Nation's close ties to nature since in China we use many plants and herbs as medicine although we do not have sacred plants.
First Nations medicine wheels are believed to go back as far as 4000 years. This example is a modern stone version. It has a central stone, two concentric circles and four lines coming from the centre circle. Each section corresponds to a direction (North, East, West, South), colour (white, black, yellow, red), the four parts of a person (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual), the four kingdoms (animal, mineral, plant and human) and the four sacred medicines: tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. The centre represents the self. It is simple looking but complex in meaning.
These stones were placed on the RCMP grounds as an act of solidarity to cherish the memory of First Nation’s women murdered, abused and maltreated across the nation. It is also an example of how reconciliation can start occur. We also left a small bag of tobacco left in the middle of the circle to commemorate these victims. More than 1,000 First Nation’s women have disappeared or been found murdered in Canada since 1980. First Nations people feel the racism directly and claim that the police did not and still not trying their hardest to find the women and solve the crimes because they are First. This stone circle is a constant reminder of the loss and also of the resolve to pay attention and change the culture of abuse and neglect.
When I saw the memorial wall shown below I found it hard to believe so many RCMP officers would have died in duty in Canada. Many of these members would have served First Nations communities.
Contrast this magnificent stone memorial to RCMP officers who died during duty, mainly Caucasian to the small, almost invisible graveyard for the First Nations children who died in the Residential School. The contrast is inescapable. For me the question is: "What message does this contrast continue to send?" The answer for me is, "An unacceptable message of inequality and racism."
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have a long history of involvement with First Nations going back to the Northwest Mounted Police. Historical and present relations were and are strained due colonization and claims of systemic racism and abuse by the RCMP towards First Nations people and communities. This historical aircraft is a symbol of how the RCMP travelled to remote areas and covered the vast distances in western. The sight of such a plane overhead or landing would have been an exciting yet foreign one to isolated First Nations communities and when the planes were used to take residents and children away they became a symbol of fear and invasion.
Seven Stone Community School is a new initiative with the Regina Public School System. Here the principal explained the reasons behind creating the school. The goal is to created a learning environment that respects First Nations culture and the environment, including native language instruction rather than French. This school is the opposite of what Residential Schools were designed to accomplish. The Vice-Principal gave us the gift of a cigarette plant grown by the students, a tangible reminder of how these students are getting in touch with their roots. They won’t teach French in the classroom but rather than their own language. I really like the idea of this unique school but wonder if changes will occur in the community so they can take full advantage of this innovative school. The smiling faces in their 2016 graduating class, while small, are a hopeful sign for the future and inspiration for First Nations youth and their parents.
This black pen drawing by a First Nations artist reinforces how important nature is for the First Nations culture. For their culture, the moon is the guardian of the earth and protector of humans at night. It is a symbol of prestige which the artist shows with the the symbolism of the moon spirit. As an artist I was fascinated with the art on display. The First Nations interconnection with nature and the spirit/animal world is a strong theme even in the art of the young children with a forest and river. Their art is simple with a powerful, unmistakeable message and as a person of Asian ancestry, which First Nations share, I appreciate the technique and connection between life and nature.
First Nations children show their connection to the earth at an early age.
We saw a graffiti wall when we were doing the volunteer work. The artists created a peace logo on the wall with a tree in the middle to show how important Mother Earth means to them. The hand prints symbolize community support. I struggle to understand when looking at the art and hearing about the spirituality how and why there is such a disconnect between past ways of life and today’s dysfunction. Clearly colonization was, and some claim still is, a huge factor but without reconciliation on both sides the future looks bleak.
The last part of our field trip was a real eye opener. We went outside to do volunteer work with White Pony Lodge, found used needles and condoms and discarded water bottles on the street. As they do twice a week, volunteers pick them up with their special equipment and discard them safely so that the kids can be safer. I am not naive and know that prostitution and drug use is a problem in North Central, sometimes called The Hood, but the scope of it surprised me, especially done in public spaces.
The lady who helped at the First Nation organization gave a lecture about the First Nation's life, how the residential schools affected them, and how did the white people treat them before and now. In all societies there are people who are taking drugs, drink alcohol and acting out. It's not just a First Nation's problem but they have the stereotype. Most people only see only see the dark side of the First Nations; they don't care or bother to learn how other First Nations changing.