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Trek to highlight Indigenous issues was emotional

Thursday’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada is earmarked as a time to reflect on the country’s Indigenous peoples, with events in the region created to spread awareness of the struggles the First Nations have faced since colonization.

September 30 is also Orange Shirt Day, with the wearing of an orange shirt symbolizing unity and understanding of those struggles, particularly the history of residential schools.

Orange Shirt Day was started in 2013 based on the experience Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor, who had her orange shirt stripped from her on the first day at a residential school in 1973.

Today, the story of residential schools is front and center given the recent discoveries of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who attended such schools – in Canada and the U.S., the remains of more than 6,000 children have been discovered.

Such issues were the impetus for a walk to Parliament earlier this month by long-time Kitchener residents Darcelle Carroll and her husband James Young, who both have Indigenous backgrounds. Together with their friend, they walked to Parliament Hill at the beginning of the month to give a voice to residential school survivors and create awareness of the children who never made it home. They left Kitchener on September 1, heading down Highway 7. About 15 days later, they made it to Ottawa by foot.

“It was emotionally draining but emotionally rewarding – I broke down seeing all the shoes and everything there. We ended up leaving our shoes that we hiked up in, just to leave our mark behind with them and let them know we were there supporting and doing everything that we can. We left our flag that we carried the whole way and healing sage kit. It was definitely emotional. I found out that my great grandfather was a chief from the reserve that my grandmother comes from – he was a chief for 17 years straight, I also found out she was a survivor of a residential school,” said Young.

Along the way Carroll and James met numerous hospitable people, many of whom were Natives themselves. Some people stopped them so they could learn more about Indigenous issues. They were given gifts and food by many passersby. One woman dropped off a $100 grocery card after they made camp that day, wanting to do more. The OPP kept an eye on them through their trip, remaining supportive of what they were trying to do. 

Young noted many people apologized for Canada’s residential school history, wanting to unite with the Healing Generation of Walker’s mission. But some areas of Ontario they walked through were more abrasive.

“The whole Peel and York region was a nightmare; the police were really supportive. There was one restaurant I went into to use the washroom and they looked at me sideways and wouldn’t let me use the washroom. Someone left a note on our car, somebody said look up the meaning of genocide, Darcelle ended up [writing] underneath the actual meaning [of it]. When we got to Bolton, we couldn’t find anywhere to camp – the community centres wouldn’t let us. We went to a motel that was ridden with bedbugs, it was horrible, so we left and camped outside,” said Young about the tougher parts of their journey.

“We were down in our spirits, we kept talking to each other saying ‘we knew this was going to happen’ –we just had more hope that it wouldn’t have been that bad. But afterwards we had people stopping and joining us. People were asking if we needed ice, water … ” said Carroll.

Goodwood, where the popular Canadian TV show Schitt’s Creek was filmed, was one of the most hospitable communities, noted Carroll and Young. They were stopped by a women named Dianne and her family who wanted to lend their support, letting them know where they could camp and places to check out.

“She came back with stuff for us. Dianne came with Gatorade, fruits and stuff like that,” said Young.

“Other town members came with water and wanting to talk with us and that’s when I learned Schitt’s Creek was filmed there,” said Carroll.“The town was letting their friends know we were walking down, so some were down the road waiting for us.

“I thought we wouldn’t be able to get there. Then all of a sudden, the signs started showing Ottawa, it was 93 kilometres than it was 50 kilometres and then there were no more signs: we were in Ottawa.”

Young mentioned that the hotel they stayed in once they got to Ottawa was very hospitable, upgrading their friend’s room and letting them leave their car there while they walked to Parliament to complete their journey.

“It shocked me when we got to Ottawa, the dismay right by Parliament – we think about us as First Nations and the Métis community where we’re struggling and want recognition, but here’s people who have served our country, homeless, sitting right outside of Parliament with signs,” said Carroll, shocked by the number of people outside of the building.

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