'It broke my heart, it really did,' Mi'kmaw communities reflect on residential school discovery
MEMBERTOU FIRST NATION -- In First Nations communities all over Cape Breton Island, people stopped to reflect on Monday.
In most - if not all - of these communities, there are residential school survivors and descendants of residential school survivors.
A makeshift memorial to the 215 indigenous children whose remains were found buried near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., created a powerful image: 215 pairs of shoes were placed on the steps of a church on the Membertou First Nation.
"It broke my heart, it really did," said Tracy Smith.
Smith dropped by with her one-year-old granddaughter, to pay their respects.
"It really hits home to think that such beautiful children that never had a chance," Smith said.
Jada Paul is Membertou's youth chief.
"It's heartwarming, but it's also heartbreaking," Paul said.
She says people have been coming here all day to drop off shoes or just reflect.
She says some are community members, including residential school survivors.
Others are non-indigenous people.
At just sixteen years old herself, this hits home.
"This is just the beginning," Paul said. "We don't know how many children have lost their lives being at residential schools."
In Eskasoni First Nation, the largest Mi'kmaw community in the Maritimes, Chief Leroy Denny says his focus has been on meeting with and supporting residential school survivors there.
"I was very saddened and I wasn't surprised," Chief Denny said. "I spent the afternoon with the survivors for a ceremony and we lit the sacred fire."
He says for the survivors in particular, the discovery made in B.C. opens up old wounds.
"It's time that we listen to the survivors and all of the stories that they've been sharing," Denny said.
Paul says "my hope for the future is that more non-indigenous people learn about this and that they take action."
Back in Membertou, as the flags fly at half mast and the collection of shoes grew larger, the hope is that people from coast to coast will learn from this grim discovery and that today's youth, such as Smith's daughter, will grow up in a country that's been changed by reconciliation and by the lessons of its past.
"I'm hopeful," Smith said. "I'm hopeful that she is. I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that she does. And I hope everybody else reaches out and joins hands and does the same."
But for now, people in First Nations communities here in the Maritimes and across the country are absorbing the sadness - and the outrage - that comes with a revelation like this.
In Eskasoni, Chief Denny says the sacred fire will burn for the next nine days -- or 215 hours -- to honour the 215 children.
He also says shoes are being placed on the steps of a church there and on Monday evening, some people will be leaving their porch lights on and putting a teddy bear outside.