Thousands take to Vancouver streets to walk for reconciliation

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Image: Flickr/Province of British Columbia

Sunday morning drew a crowd of 50,000 people to Walk for Reconciliation, an event organized in partnership by Reconciliation Canada and the City of Vancouver.

Termed Numwayut, meaning "we are all one," the event also brought out some of the country's top officials, including Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations and locally, B.C. Premier John Horgan and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Winona Stevens was one of the first time attendees who came from North Vancouver to complete the two-kilometre walk.

Originally from Rocky Bay Nation in North Western Ontario, Stevens, 38, brought along her three-year-old son, Jayden along with her. "He needs to understand his own culture and his own people. It is important that he has a lot of connection to his cultural roots," she said.

"We come from survivors and I hope he carries that with him as he grows. I hope he knows his ancestors are survivors, and that he has a huge community behind him."

A feeling of community was an emotion that ran strong throughout the day's events, including speeches held at Strathcona Park, with National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations reminding the audience that "we are all part of the human tribe."

Chief Bellegarde encouraged those who turned out not to forget that while Indigenous peoples were being celebrated and honoured on the day, it was in stark comparison to the decades of residential schools, potlatch bans and Indigenous peoples being denied their right to organize and observe their culture.

Chief Bellegarde also urged community members to put away stereotypes of Indigenous peoples are lazy, drunk and living on welfare, adding, "our people are becoming educated and becoming stronger."

"No one here today may have had a direct hand to things like the residential schools, the Indian Act, but you can all play a role in rebuilding a shared future," he said.

"Don't accept the status quo (about Indigenous peoples). Make sure every school in the province and country teaches the impact of the Indian Act and about residential schools," he added.

Khelsilem, from the Squamish Nation -- a lecturer at SFU in Coast Salish languages, and the programming director and founder of Kwi Awt Stelmexw -- reiterated that much more work needs to be done, adding, "I don't think showing up for a march is ever enough but I think marches and rallies reinforce values. I think it's incumbent on those with power to implement those values."

Coming out to the march with his family, Khelsilem, 28, says he felt a mixture of joy and wonder.

"Joy comes from the feeling of survival. I was singing on the bridge with my family and cousins, and was thinking 'all of this could have been lost.' But we survived."

Khelsilem, who works on preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages so they may continue onto the next generations, has also recently launched a campaign to petition the new B.C. government to accord Indigenous languages legal protection, among other asks.

The Walk for Reconciliation was first held in Vancouver in 2013, and brought out around 70,000 people from the Metro Vancouver area. In 2015, a similar walk in Ottawa, coincided with closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and saw 10,000 people make the walk.

Brainchild of Chief Robert Joseph, himself a residential school survivor, the Walk for Reconciliation was born of an idea to promote healing between Indigenous peoples and Canadians. The walk is one of the many efforts by Reconciliation Canada, an Indigenous-led charitable organization to create awareness, dialogue and revitalize relationships about Canada's history -- and a shared future.

Chief Joseph explains, "Love is at the heart of the reconciliation journey. When people walk together to share hopes and dreams, endless transformative possibilities emerge. New relationships are forged, understanding deepens and a new way forward is paved with justice, equality and inclusion."

So where do those go who want to walk the walk, but also talk the talk? Stevens said, "If you consider yourself an ally, especially if you're white, [it] is about stepping up on a daily basis. I want to see white people stop the racism that happens in the workplace, on the bus, in our everyday. Those everyday microaggressions that happen to Indigenous peoples -- I would love if you consider yourself to be a white ally, if you step up during those situations."

Khelsilem recommended, "Become educated about residential schools. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report. People should make a commitment to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples -- and it won't happen in this country unless non-Indigenous people do that."

Image: Flickr/Province of British Columbia

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