First Nation creates new home for children’s shoes left behind on Parliament Hill last year


A First Nation in western Quebec has made a new home for shoes that were left on Parliament Hill last year in memory of children who never returned to their families after being forced to attend residential schools from Canada.

On Thursday, elders, students and other community members gathered on a hill overlooking the Grades 1-11 school in Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg, an Algonquin First Nation located 136 kilometers north of Ottawa.

It was on this steep hill, inside a large circle of stones painted orange, that the shoes that had piled up in front of the Center Block were buried in birch bark baskets marked with the footprints of hands of local students.

After being removed from Parliament Hill last October under the leadership of Algonquin elders, “they needed a place,” said Alison Commando, a local educator from Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg. They were buried on the hill this spring.

The Parliament Hill memorial took shape after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia announced that they had discovered more than 200 alleged burial sites near the former Kamloops residential school.

It was one of many memorials with children’s shoes and toys that have appeared across the country, after the discovery sparked a national toll involving the historic and ongoing treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Jenny Tenasco, a survivor of Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg residential school, is among the elders who agreed that the shoes needed a proper final resting place.

« It will be another way of respecting children and part of healing, » she said.

The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation estimates, based on death records, that at least 4,100 children died in residential schools across Canada, and many were likely buried in unmarked, unattended graves. in schools or school cemeteries.

The true figure is probably much higher. Murray Sinclair, the former chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said up to 25,000 children may have died in schools.

Shoes, toys and more have been set up around the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 2, 2021 in recognition of what is believed to be the discovery of children’s remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Tenasco was sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey boarding school run by the Presbyterian Church in Kenora, Ontario, located nearly 2,000 kilometers from Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg.

She remembers the pain she felt when she was taken on a bus after having her teeth pulled, and the agony of being separated from her older sister by a fence.

« We were never allowed to speak our language, » she said. « Those were stolen words. »

Jenny Tenasco, a Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg elder, attended a residential school nearly 2,000 kilometers away in Kenora, Ontario. (Guy Quenneville/Radio-Canada)

A place of « resilience »

Commando, the guidance counselor at Kitigan Zibi Kikinamadinan School – which is connected to the hill site by a footpath – welcomed class after class to the hilltop on Thursday. Children of all ages helped her form the circle of stones.

Commando said the site resonated with her because, unlike boarding schools, where students were stripped of their culture, Kitigan Zibi Kikinamadinan successfully applied in the 1970s to take charge of her own education system.

« I’m glad things have changed. But it should never have been like this, » said Grade 11 student Mia Chabot.

Memorials from Parliament Hill find refuge in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg

Alison Commando, guidance counselor at Kitigan Zibi Kikinamadinan School, says the memorial aims to recognize residential school students while honoring the resilience of the community.

Commando said his mother, like Tenasco, attended boarding school and survived.

« If she had been one of those students who didn’t, I wouldn’t exist, » Commando said.

“My son would not exist. My family would not exist. [weren’t.] »

Guidance counselor Alison Commando welcomed students to the new site on Thursday. (Guy Quenneville/Radio-Canada)

Commando hopes that the hill site, in addition to serving as a permanent memorial and meeting place – benches will be added later – will also be a source of « resilience ».

« It’s about honoring them, » she said of residential school students who didn’t survive, « but I don’t want to traumatize survivors over and over again to talk about what they have lived ».

« Let’s talk about our resilience. Let’s talk about who we are and where we are now. That’s why our students are involved. »

The shoes were buried in birchbark baskets imprinted with the orange handprints of local Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg school children. (Guy Quenneville/Radio-Canada)


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