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'A dark time': Nipissing First Nation recognizes and remembers the horrors of Canadian residential schools

As part of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a ceremony was held in the Nipissing First Nation community of Garden Village on Saturday.

A dozen jingle dress dancers were dancing in a circle around a group of residential school survivors – the dance symbolized healing.

"It was very sad," said dancer Ava Couchie.

"I was dancing for them."

The First Nation community presented gifts to four residential school survivors – gifts from the heart –and hugs were shared.

Data shows 127 Nipissing First Nation children were ripped from their families and forced to attend residential schools.

Most of the children from this First Nation were sent to a residential school in Spanish, Ont., west of Greater Sudbury. The school closed in 1962 and there are only a handful of survivors still alive today.

June Commanda was at the school from 1946 to 1951 with her sister and brother.

"All you thought of was you wanted to go home," she said.

"I wanted to be in my village and see my people and see my grandmother."

Commanda described her time at the school as "very difficult and very lonely".

She told CTV News that at the time she often wondered why she was at the school and that she recalled greatly missing her mother.

"We were poorly dressed and malnourished and if you go to Spanish, you would never know there was a residential school there," she said.

After the ceremony, First Nations and allies, clad in orange marched to the band office where a wreath was laid at a residential school memorial that lists the names of the people who were forced into the system.

"It was a dark time in our history. But we also learn from our past so we can correct the present and hopefully and make a future for tomorrow," said Nipissing First Nation Deputy Chief Mike Sawyer.

Mike Sawyer, Deputy Chief of the Nipissing First Nation, speaks at National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Garden Village on Sept. 30/23. (Eric Taschner/CTV News Northern Ontario)The school system was created to isolate Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture in order to assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture.

Over the course of the system's more than 100-year existence, around 150,000 children were placed in residential schools nationally.

"I was praying for the ones around the circle," said Couchie.

There is a memory of pain, trauma and sadness – but at the same time, we celebrate a culture that remains ever-vibrant.

"I'm happy that it's being acknowledged today," said Commanda.

Residential school survivor June Commanda at the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation ceremony in Garden Village in 2023. (Eric Tascher/CTV News Northern Ontario)If you are a former residential school student in distress or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419. Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous Peoples are available here. Top Stories

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