Sudbury high school marks day with 'Walk for Wenjack'
It was a moving and solemn morning outside St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School as more than 700 students made their way around the track for the 'Walk for Wenjack' on Thursday.
The annual Walk For Wenjack honours Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died at age 12 while running away from his residential school near Redditt, Ont., and the thousands like him who never made it home.
The school held the event to mark the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
"To me, I was looking forward to this day but I also had my own heaviness that I would carry," said Indigenous support worker Shannon Agowissa. "Starting out and seeing all the students wearing the orange shirts really made a difference."
Agowissa worked with the school's administration to carry out the walk.
Class-by-class, students made their way outside where they learned about smudging and how the walk would work.
They followed their teachers around the track and stopped at various signs that raised awareness about residential schools. Afterward, students were given an orange ribbon to tie around the flag pole of an "Every Child Matters" flag.
"It's powerful and you want to make sure you're doing it right," Agowissa said.
"I want kids to see smudge and think 'oh okay, I know what that is,' and allow them to make the decision to smudge or say 'I don't need to,' to make this an everyday thing for them."
As an Indigenous woman, Agowissa said it was moving to see how students took the exercise seriously. She's hoping they all leave having learned something when the day is over.
"To see the moments... because kids are kids right? They want to play. They want to have fun. That's natural in them and respecting them as youths, but also you want them to ... we're going to take a moment here and respect the stories that we're hearing today," she added.
It was a similar feeling for Grade 10 student Destiny Nootchtai.
"I feel it's important because it's important for our school community to be involved in something like this," Nootchtai said. "A lot of them don't know what's going on today so I feel like Shannon's role is really important in what she's doing and how she teaches them."
She calls the walk a really good start for the school as it starts its journey toward truth and reconciliation.
"I hope students take knowledge, and respect, and kindness, and just learning lots of things. I think this is pretty great, it was a pretty great day, it was a good start," Nootchtai said.
St. Benedict is one of a few schools in the immediate area that have signed on to become a 'legacy school.' It's a commitment towards action and participating in the "Every Child Matters" initiative.
Legacy schools are part of a national initiative that was launched by the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund.
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 Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.