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- By Gary W. Kenny

With last Thursday evening's fundraiser, Mehdahwaychigaywin (Ojibwe for musical sound), the Gitche Namewikwedong Reconciliation Garden Committee moved closer to collecting the money it needs to build a planned "reconciliation garden" at Owen Sound's Kelso Beach Park.

Drumming, singing and stories entertained and informed about 110 people gathered at the Heartwood Concert Hall for the occasion.

According to Susan Staves, chairperson for the Reconciliation Garden Committee and MC for the event, the purpose of the garden project includes acknowledging "first peoples' presence on this traditional territory, in the past, present and future; to reclaim place, culture, ecology, and wellness; and to educate all nations about the legacy of residential schools, and help build better relationships [between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples] through reconciliation."

The garden will be built on the site of an historic village once home to the people of Saugeen Ojibway Nation (Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash collectively). Historical records show that the Sydenham and Potawatomie rivers were the historic fertile hunting and fishing grounds for these Indigenous peoples.
The Ojibwe are part of the Three Fires Confederacy (Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatomi peoples) who refer to themselves as Anishinaabek, the plural form of Anishinaabe.
The reconciliation garden site was officially dedicated on Canada 150 day last year in the presence of local chiefs, municipal officials, reconciliation garden committee members, dancers and drummers from Saugeen and Nawash First Nations, and the public.

Designed by landscape architect Thomas Dean of Meaford, the garden will feature a medicine wheel and other elements of sacred importance to the Ojibwe people. A river of dry stone will flow through the garden among white birch trees. Swimming in the river will be a large sculpted metal sturgeon. The sturgeon is of sacred value to the Ojibwe people.

If there was a recurring theme at evening's presentations it was the devastating reality and legacy of residential schools. In a dramatic and moving story Jimelda Johnston of the Chippewas of Nawash donned a pair of sunglasses and took the audience into the "cold, dark night" of a former residential school, and a room where staff of the institution had drawn a line down the middle of the floor of a large room.

The line, Johnston said, was meant to separate children of different age groups. Crossing it could mean harsh punishment. Johnson told how one teenaged Indigenous girl would dare to sit on the floor very near the line so she could touch shoulders with frightened younger girl children on the other side, and thereby offer them some comfort.

Local musician Raymond King spoke of the cross-generational impact of social trauma experienced by those who attended residential schools and how it can affect Indigenous families today, and sang a song he had composed about domestic violence.

Thirteen-year old Rose Kewageshig of Saugeen First Nation braved the glare of the stage lights to tell the audience about what she had learned about life in residential schools for children forcibly removed from their homes and families. Her great grandparents were among those taken.

More than 150,000 children were taken to the schools from 1883-1998 as part of a program of forced assimilation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that more than 3200 Indigenous children in total died at the schools from confinement-related illnesses, starvation and beatings.

Many of the dead were buried in unmarked graves at or near the site of the schools to which they were sent. As recently as August 31, CTV News reported that the remains of more than 50 Indigenous children, ranging in age from 7-16, were found beneath an RV park on the Assinboine River near Brandon, Manitoba. The children, buried in unmarked graves, were from the nearby Brandon Indian Residential School. The graves dated to the early 1900s.

With Thursday's event, which raised $5000, the Committee has now accumulated $23,000 toward the reconciliation garden's total budget of $83,000. Among its ongoing fundraising efforts, the Reconciliation Garden Committee has applied to the Community Foundation Grey Bruce for a capital grant of $30,000.

Readers wishing to donate to the project can make a direct donation by going to CanadaHelps or send a cheque to United Way Grey Bruce, 380 9th Street East Owen Sound N4K 1P1, marked with: Gitche Namewikwedong Reconciliation Garden. Donations are tax receiptable. Attractive T-shirts featuring the sturgeon image from the garden can also be ordered by contacting Susan Schank at: [email protected]

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