CALLING LAKE — A community honour walk on National Truth and Reconciliation Day in Calling Lake Sept. 30 was much quieter than the walk Calling Lake School students endured the previous day.
As students walked from the school Sept. 29, north to the cemetery, a local man accosted them hurling racist comments and calling the teachers names, witnesses said, upsetting many in the community who took to social media to warn others of what happened and urging them to come together to protect the children.
“My sister and I were very busy hanging a lot of hearts and signs and t-shirts and whatever we could think of to support the kids that were coming for a walk from the school to the church,” Linda Gladue said in an interview Sept. 29. "I had noticed that somebody was standing on the side of the road (and) I thought ‘Oh good, somebody must be supporting our children’ and then the kids started getting closer … and they were saying that the guy was saying things to them; horrible things like, ‘you guys don't even know what's going on’ and ‘all you guys want is money’ and just very awful comments.”
While recounting what happened, Gladue cried and needed a few moments to compose herself, saying she was angry and hurt a man who is not Indigenous but living in a First Nations community would think his comments would be overlooked.
“I was in shock, so I walked over there and … I said, ‘You are a coward, verbally assaulting our children.’ I can't even remember what he said but I was so hurt, I just could not believe that somebody would assault our children like that in a Native community,” said Gladue. “He is a guest here; he is not even a part of our community and yet, they come here, and they discriminate against us.”
Gladue said she doesn’t understand why people who don’t like Indigenous people would want to live or vacation in an Indigenous community.
“We've had to face so much discrimination in our community, it's just unreal. From the cops to the cottagers to people that come in for the day and think this is their playground, and we live here year-round. We don't bother anybody,” she said. “But today it was very hurtful because my sister and I were remembering the moms (who lost children).”
Lorraine Cardinal also witnessed the event and spoke with the man herself.
“I did talk to him and de-escalated the situation,” she said in a phone call Sept. 30, adding Calling Lake School principal, Jason Wiks, did his best to protect the students from what was being said.
Cardinal recounted the man told her the unmarked graves were a hoax to extort more money from the government.
“How? I asked,” Cardinal said. “The government already owes us trillions of dollars. When the treaties were signed, they only gave the depth of a plow then they took all the resources below that.”
He asked why it was a big deal for these children to have died away from family, she said.
“We all deserve to have people who love us beside us when we die,” Cardinal told him.
The man then told Cardinal he didn’t want his taxes going to pay for restitution and she reminded him Indigenous people pay taxes too.
“I didn’t get angry, I kept to my purpose,” Cardinal said. “Then he said, pardon my language – ‘kiss my ass’ – before going back inside.”
That evening another group were walking in the area and the man confronted them as well, even getting on his quad and following them a short distance.
“One of the grandmas that was walking with us was very upset because her granddaughter and grandson had been walking (with the school). She called him out; she told him, ‘You have no right assaulting our children,'” said Gladue.
She noted orange decorations placed on private land across the road from the man were torn down, but nowhere else, and the tatters were still caught in the branches and grass Sept. 30.
“He knows our community is 98 per cent Native, knows all those little children are Native," she said. “And how are those kids going to feel? Are they going to feel it was pointless; their walk is pointless? Are they going to feel that maybe we're wrong, maybe we're being told something that's not true? It just takes one person to start this horrifying incident; it's a lot of anger.”
And as the news spread through the community it reached Bigstone Cree Nation councillor Lillian Anderson.
“I heard about the whole incident from a local Indigenous community member who is also one of our teachers, who witnessed the horrible outrage from this individual,” Anderson said. “This horrible news bothered me for the remainder of the day, and I shared it with my husband who is non-Indigenous who also got very upset.”
Anderson then continued working on her driveway display for Every Child Matters and contemplated long and hard on how to react to the event and the answer came to her in the night from her late grandmother.
“I got a message from my late grandmother, my guardian angel, who was also a residential school survivor from the age of 5,” Anderson said. “She said, ‘You have to walk for me today.’”
So, bright and early in the morning Anderson started reaching out to community members to organize an Honour Walk, to remember all the children who went away to residential schools and never returned as well as the ones who returned with deep scars from the trauma they endured. The walk followed the same road, past the house where the incident occurred, but this time the gate was shut, and the curtains drawn.
“It’s sad to hear that trauma is still being imposed on our people and children every day, worse right in the heart of our community; they were attacked (Sept. 29) by a hateful, heartless, racist individual,” Anderson said. “If he feels this way, then I recommend he relocates to another community, as this community will not forget his outrage and will not feel welcoming any longer. We are a loving, caring community. This horrific life in residential schools was forced upon our people; the rest of non-Indigenous Canada needs to think about how it could have been them; have empathy. This racism continues in our local town where the majority of our community contributes to greater financial economy for decades. It is now 2021, we are all living through a global pandemic, and it is time that all Canadians support each other and end the division between races.”
In a statement from Northland School Division (NSD) Oct. 1, the board of trustees and administration were disappointed the incident occurred.
“Along with many other Canadians, schools across Northland School Division organized activities this week to remember the lives of children and generations of families impacted by residential schools,” the statement read. “Following the incident, the staff at Calling Lake School spoke to the students and re-emphasized the important role they have in truth and reconciliation and to not get discouraged by negativity. It’s a teachable moment and an opportunity to help others understand the injustice caused by the education assimilation policies of the removal of Indigenous children as young as four from their families, communities and traditions.”
The trustees and administration noted all NSD schools were closed Sept. 30 to observe National Truth and Reconciliation Day.
“As we move forward, Northland School Division will continue to encourage and support the resilience of our communities to take back what was taken of culture and language in residential schools. We will stand together to support each other in mourning those children found in unmarked graves and celebrate their homecoming.”
Over 50 residents of all ages, including Anderson’s mother, 84-year-old Mary Gladue, a residential school survivor, and all wearing orange, showed up at the M.D. of Opportunity office parking lot to walk, drive or ride to the cemetery and back in memory of the little ones lost and the survivors and to overwrite the added trauma from the previous day.