Residential school survivors honoured at powwow

Event hosted on former Assiniboia school grounds

Photo by Quincy Houdayer

The Orange Shirt Day Powwow took place Sunday at Wellington Park with over 100 people attending.

The event was organized in honour of the survivors and families of the residential schools and was emceed by Eric and Shaneen Robinson. The powwow was held at the location of the former Assiniboia Indian Residential School. Hosting the event on the same grounds where the crimes of the residential schools were committed allowed the attendees to reclaim Wellington Park, affirming the past and seizing the future.

The field where the festivity took place is situated below a hill where atop it the old Assiniboia school building sits. The residential school has since turned into the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

As the powwow geared up, the dancers, singers and drummers took their place in the shadow of the old residential school. But, as the grand entry kicked off, it was clear that Assiniboia was in the shadow of the powwow.
One survivor of the Assiniboia residential school, Josephine Robinson, who graduated from the school in 1965, spoke with the Manitoban briefly. “I was 14 when I first came here,” Robinson said.

On her feelings about the location, she said “I always have this strange feeling when there is nothing in the field.”

“It was sectioned off in two. There was a line in the middle, with boys on one side and girls on the other. And nobody could cross because they had brothers and sisters and they couldn’t even talk to each other.”
Robinson added that she did have some positive experiences.

“This is where I learned discipline for myself,” she said. “I did make some lifelong friends.”

Michael Esquash led a prayer before the grand entry, honouring those impacted by residential schools. His words were short but resounded with attendees. “Thanks for the ones who made it home and remember those who didn’t,” he said.

Shortly after, Eric Robinson called on all residential school survivors who were in attendance to lead the grand entry. At the rear of the group was leader of Manitoba’s official opposition, Wab Kinew, who often dances in Indigenous ceremonies.

The drums and singing of the opening song called “Victory” were performed by the Spirit Sands Singers. Survivors leading the grand entry danced emphatically as the participants danced to the drums and voices of the song. The atmosphere was electric as the audience was drawn into the awesome performance.

Later, there were performances from Buffalo Red Thunder, Prairie Grass Singers and Brown Bear Singers. All of which were just as exciting and entertaining as the opening song.

After the grand entry, survivors came to the microphone to speak about their experiences and feelings of the residential schools. Among them was Valerie Wood. She described the taking of her siblings by authorities to be brought to residential schools.

“My brothers and my sisters all were taken from my home,” said Wood. “One by one. I remember hearing them cry as they were taken from us.
“After, we didn’t know where we fit. Were the bonds with our home broken?”

Wood said that she rediscovered herself in a sweat lodge after surviving the residential school.

“My sweat lodge experience showed I was an Anishinaabe woman. And it was such a good feeling to finally know,” she said.

The powwow ended with a feast where the participants and attendees all enjoyed snacks and beverages. The conversation started by those like Robinson and Wood carried over into the evening.