As the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation approaches, a group of residential school survivors in Winnipeg are encouraging others to reach out and speak up.

“Because of where we are right now, as most of us are elders, seniors … you need somebody to be there, somebody to acknowledge what you’re saying and somebody to understand where you’ve been. Because it’s so powerful and it’s so sacred,” said elder Betty Ross.

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Ross is from Pimicikamak Cree Nation, and is part of a residential school survivors peer support group in Winnipeg known as the Thrivers.

On Monday morning, a group of Thrivers were at Memorial Park in Winnipeg to help kick off Reconciliation Week — a series of residential school-related events being organized by Anish Corporation.

Ross’ experiences at residential schools were told in Sugar Falls, a fictional graphic novel by David A. Robertson. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

The events started with a sacred fire being lit inside a beautiful orange teepee inside the park, followed by a pipe ceremony that was held with knowledge keepers and Manitoba MLAs from both PC and NDP caucuses.

As a child, Ross attended the St. Joseph residential school — also known as Cross Lake residential school — for six years starting in 1951. She went to day school for five years, and then graduated from the Assiniboia Indian Residential School in Winnipeg.

She started attending the Thrivers program three years ago and said that she appreciates being around people with similar experiences.

“Most of us are in a healing journey. It’s so crucial to share where we are on our journey with each other. And there’s a lot of laughter. There’s a lot of important stuff that we go through as Thrivers daily in this life, in an urban setting,” said Ross.

WATCH | Winnipeg residential school survivors encourage others to reach out, speak up:

Winnipeg residential school survivors encourage others to reach out and speak up

It started with the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops, while searches at other residential schools have grown. As the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation approaches, Winnipeg survivors are sharing their experiences with others to give them a chance to learn more. 3:09

When 215 unmarked graves were discovered at the Kamloops Indian residential schools in May, Ross said she wasn’t surprised by it and that she expected something like this would happen one day.

“It just immobilizes you … It hurts to the core of your being,” said Ross.

“And most of us are having a lot of difficulty expressing it because we’re in that journey every day.”

Thrivers rely on each other for support

Christina Kitchekesik from Tataskweyak Cree Nation has been with the Thrivers group for five years.

On Monday, she was at Memorial Park on behalf of Anish Corporation, handing out orange t-shirts and sweaters to anyone that attended residential schools as well as their family members.

She said that the Thrivers helped her to overcome her broken heart after learning about unmarked graves earlier this year.

“There’s so much to absorb and it’s really helpful. We’re like a family. We help each other like people say, you know, we’re like medicines, we learn from each other,” said Kitchekesik.

Christina Kitchekesik attended the Guy Hill Indian Residential school for 14 years and has been on her own personal healing journey for the last 40 years. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

One of her favourite things about the Thrivers program is that it takes a holistic approach to well-being.

The program includes things like mental health workshops, outings, medicine picking and ceremonies.

“It helped me immensely,” said Kitchekesik.

“A lot of that is happening in this one organization, and I’ve learned a lot from them. And well, we learned a lot from each other.”

Another Thrivers participant, Nancy Greendwaldt, said that she likes that the program puts an emphasis on families.

She said that she would like to see more people being educated on residential schools and encourages people to show up to Orange Shirt Day events.

“The more, the merrier, for sure,” said Greenwaldt.

Nancy Greenwaldt attended day school as a child. She said that she enjoys spending time with other women in the Thrivers program and getting a chance to listen to their stories. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

“Come on out and wear your orange shirts and feel the feelings, you know, feel the love and feel that power of the people that is coming out.”

MLAs attend pipe ceremony

The Anish Corporation, which oversees the Thrivers program, is run by Eva Wilson-Fontaine.

On Monday she joined a smudging ceremony at the office of MLA Alan Lagimodiere, the Minister for Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations, in the Manitoba Legislative Building.

Afterward, a pipe ceremony that she helped to organize was held that included Premier Kelvin Goertzen, MLA Scott Fielding and opposition leader Wab Kinew.

Eva Wilson-Fontaine is one of the co-organizers for “Reconciliation Week.” She is encouraging people to participate in events taking place on Sept. 30. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

“I always say actions speak louder than words and by them coming and taking time out of their day to come and sit in ceremony and share and listen … is really important,” said Wilson-Fontaine.

 “What happened today here is really historical, in my eyes,” said Wilson-Fontaine.

The Anish Corporation, along with other groups like Wa-say Healing Centre, will be hosting the sacred fire at Memorial Park until the Sept. 29.

They will then move the fire to St. Johns Park on Sept. 30, where there will be a powwow taking place.

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