In the Anishnaabe creation story, the figure of Nanabozhoo plays a major role. As I understand it he is the first being in human form to walk the Earth. Since w are last species to be created, he walks the land and learns from other species. They teach him -and us - the way humans should live.
The mountain the towers over Thunder Bay is a likeness of him. He is the Sleeping Giant as you can see across the water from this town did find itself at the centre of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians today. A place where the task of learning remains active today.
One month into the Remembering Project, I was invited to speak with a group of people curious about the work. I spoke of the international human rights advocacy I had done in my career as a diplomat.
I spoke of the lessons other countries have to teach us about taking collective responsibility for our past. About how we can meet our collective responsibility with collective action. And how the action of remembering victims of residential schools can help reverse the erasure that they were set up to accomplish.
In the spirit of Nanabozhoo, we have learned a lot in our first month of this work. The survivors overseeing the search for missing children must control and direct any work done for them. And we have one group of survivors who welcome our help. But we've learned that it will take time to build the relationships required for other survivors groups to entrust us with his work.
What is the work of the Remembering Project? It is online research about residential schools, meant to equip survivors in the search for missing children.
In our first month, we did receive confirmation of the value this work. But not exactly the value we anticipated.
We had begun with a list of students who attended the Shingwauk Institute in Sault Ste Marie, all of whom came from Chapleau. Most of the names we researched were of students who graduated and went on to have adult lives. They were survivors, not children, who might be buried on the grounds of the school today.
Just learning that, however, was valuable to the search process. There simply is no list of all the children who died at the school - the survivors have to build the list from the thousands of children that attended over 100 years. By helping them rule out students that survived, we help them arrive at an accurate number. And with the documents we download, like death certificates and census records, we increase the evidence base for the conclusive count that will come.
This in itself helps counter the denialism that is growing across non-indigenous social media in Canada. Our country needs a reliable account of the number of children who died in residential schools across this country. And we are providing hard evidence for that count.
The names for which we find no documents are much more likely to be the children who died in unmarked graves. The task of refining that list, by speaking to members of the community, will fall to the survivors.
The 12 people who join me in Thunder Bay had plenty of ideas of their own of how we can help. Many were educators, and suggested we get students involved in the Remembering Project somewhere connected to the Fort William First Nation, and two survivors of a school that once operated by that name.
The most significant moment for me came when the daughter of a survivor asked if I had the medicines needed to conduct this meeting in the proper spirit. I had tobacco, sage and cedar, I told her. But I had not yet found sweetgrass. She offered me some in a specially prepared pouch, a blessing to go ahead.
After the talk, she sent me a beautiful, long braid of sweetgrass. It is a symbol of our love for the land. The bond that is available to all of us, indigenous and non-indigenous, as we build a better relationship.
We are off to a good start.