Why bells will be ringing across Canada on May 31

For 120 years, Indigenous children in Canada were separated by federal law from their families and communities and sent to church-run Indian Residential Schools. The documented purpose of these schools was to wipe out Indigenous cultures, languages, spiritualties and traditions. It failed, but it caused much continuing harm in the process. Many of these students were physically and sexually abused, did not learn how to have good relationships and were taught to be ashamed of themselves and their parents. Thousands died at these schools and never came home at all.

This Sunday, participating churches across Canada will be ringing bells at noon, ringing for reconciliation, acknowledging their part in this process and their commitment to working with Indigenous peoples to build a new and brighter future. Those churches that don’t have belfries, like First United Church and All Saints Westboro in Ottawa, will be outside ringing handbells, tambourines and anything that makes a ringing noise. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has spent six long years listening to the testimony of residential school survivors, is marking the end of its journey from May 31-June 3 with ceremonies, educational events, and a call to action. Across Canada, all kinds of people are participating in the walks for reconciliation, planting heart gardens, and other events.

In other parts of the world, grave injustices deliberately committed against a people can lead to decades or centuries of further hatred and violence. Indigenous peoples in Canada want to move forward with the rest of Canada, in a relationship of justice and harmony. This involves acknowledging not only the injustices of the past, but the continuing injustice and trauma of murdered and missing Indigenous women, destruction of Indigenous lands and waters, and the fact that First Nations and Inuit children receive a much lower standard of education in their communities than other Canadian kids. Reconciliation is a recognition of these realities and a commitment to action. We can’t just be sorry about what happened in the past, we must rectify the injustices of today and build a better future together based on justice and equality.

The Truth and Reconciliation’s Walk for Reconciliation starts on Sunday at 11 am at l’Ecole Secondaire de L’Ile in Gatineau, winds its way across the Portage Bridge between Québec and Ontario through Anishnaabe (Algonquin) sacred land, a traditional meeting place of nations, and ends at Ottawa City Hall where walkers will be welcomed 1.30 pm, followed by music and entertainment by Indigenous artists until 5 pm. The full schedule of events in Ottawa is available here.

On Wednesday, June 3, children and youth will plant a Garden of Hearts at Rideau Hall (the Governor General’s residence) in Ottawa in memory of children that “went missing” while at residential school. Many of the older schools are flanked by the unmarked graves of children, while others died in an attempt to escape their schools. In the majority of cases, their parents were never informed about what happened to them, as the schools were not accountable in any way to parents. “Honouring Memories, Planting Dreams” Heart Gardens will also be planted across Canada.

The last of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools closed in 1996. The residential school experience, the attempt to break the spirit and bodies of an entire race of people, is not just felt by those who survived the schools, but their families and communities too. Off-reserve First Nations kids who had a family member attend residential school are less likely to complete high school than those who don’t. Those who wish to know more might want to look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s interim report They Came for the Children. Another good resource is the National Film Board of Canada production We Were Children, the personal story of two survivors.

Reconciliation is to come together, understand each other, and move forward with a new and better relationship. It may start with ringing a bell or planting a garden, but there is a long road to walk ahead.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission logo