Community gathers to mark National Day for Truth and Reconciliation with message of togetherness and hope for the future

On September 30, 2021, Huu-ay-aht First Nations joined hundreds of other nations across Canada to mark the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Together with the community of Bamfield and special guests, the Nation unveiled a totem that will soon be raised in Bamfield. Close to 150 people dressed in orange gathered to hear people share their stories, honour the survivors of residential schools and their families, and share language, culture, and a meal.

Tayii Ḥaw̓ił ƛiišin welcomed everyone and spoke on the significance of the day, pointing out that he father always told him it was important that the two communities work together.

“I am proud that we are one community,” he said.

He said the totem is significant as it will stand as a symbol of strength, like the old-growth tree it came from once did in the forest.

“This will unite us and make us stronger,” he said.

Previously known as Orange Shirt Day, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a direct response to the calls for acting from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report. The report outlined 94 calls to action. Creating a federal statutory day of commemoration was Call to Action 80. According to the federal government, “the day honours the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families, and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.”

Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis Sr. reminded the sea of orange how far we have come. He said governments put in place policy that tried to eliminate First Nations in the form of the Indian Act. The goal was to “take the Indian out of the child” through the residential school system.

“We were removed from our home, our land, our culture and language, and our resources. Now they call it cultural genocide,” he explained. “They tried for 13 years to take the Indian out of me, but I’m proud to say they failed.”

He said the pole represents growth for Huu-ay-aht First Nations and the steps the Nation must take to get where they want to be. He said the Nation is at the bottom of the pole right now but climbing.

“We have a long way to go from where we were,” he said. “We are one community, and we can make it back there together.”

ACRD Director for the area Bob Beckett said Thursday was a day to reflect on the past and learn more about it and the journey forward. He said we must consider how we will move forward. It is important to acknowledge the atrocities that happened in the past and find a way to learn and grow. He closed by saying the pole raising speaks to the amazing leadership of Huu-ay-aht First Nations and their neighbours in Bamfield and the strength they must have to keep growing together.

Olivia Peters (Huupaalthus – daughter of the moon), daughter of Huu-ay-aht’s Tayii Ḥaw̓ił ƛiišin and Irene Peters, showed great strength as she addressed the large crowd.

“This is the first step in trying to bridge the gap between First Nations people and Canadians – to tell the truth and to be open and learn, educate, and listen to the stories of what happened to the First Nations people that have resided in this country since time immemorial,” she said. “Not only to hear the truths, but to put solutions and actions in place to be part of the change.”  

She said it is time to remove the stereotype of who Indian people are and that we all have a story to tell and to work together on reconciliation.

“Even though I am a second generation, it still really hurts to think about many of the people in our tribe who have gone through these schools and suffered pain,” she said. “It really hurts to think of the young children who were ripped out of their homes, to bring them to these schools. So have openness and compassion and kindness in your heart as we all move forward to reconciliation, as we are all one – Hišuk ma c̕awak.”

To recognize and honour the survivors of residential schools, Huu-ay-aht First Nations blanketed the ones in attendance. Members of their family came forward to participate in the moving. The crowd cheered for them, showing their support and love.

Wišqii asked for prayers for the survivors as well as the ones who did not make it home. He said, “we are all survivors in one way or another.” He said together “our people will help with the healing process and lead the way.”

Brian Butler from the United Steelworkers and Dallyn Willis from Western Forest Products also spoke at the event. Butler said USW believes in meaningful reconciliation, and that he was honoured to attend the important event and recognize the atrocities suffered by so many. These must not be forgotten, he said, and we must move forward promoting empathy and change, and travel an honourable path in the future. Willis said the work he has done with Huu-ay-aht First Nations is the most rewarding part of his career, and he was honoured to attend and participate in such an important day. He said reconciliation is something we must do every day to build a path together.

Wišqii reminded the crowd gathered that Huu-ay-aht is a resilient nation and it is getting stronger every day.

“We will not only survive – we will thrive,” he said. “The next story is yet to be written.”