A brilliant sunset on the evening of Saturday, June 19 provided the backdrop as the Walk of Sorrow reached Virden.
Patricia Ballantyne, the walk’s founder and coordinator resides near Prince Albert, Sask. The 47-year-old initiated the journey on June 5 at the site of the city’s former Indian Student Residential School. Her aim - to raise awareness and stimulate conversation regarding the residential school system that once existed in Canada, and the life-altering impact on survivors.
She speaks from first-hand experience, being taken from her home in Deschambault Lake at four, and living at the Prince Albert facility from 1978 to 1987. Now working as an early childhood educator, she was profoundly affected by the discovery of 215 children buried at the former Indian Residential School site in Kamloops, B.C. She was motivated to tackle the challenge.
“I started off with just myself, wanting to do this for my own healing because I was in the residential school for 10 years,” she said. “It took me a long time to forgive and try and work it through, so it was a Walk of Sorrow for myself and little ones that never got to come home. When they found the gravesite in Kamloops, it triggered the trauma I suffered when I was a kid… all the memories that I had put away for so many years. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing, so I told my husband I'm going to go for a walk and it just went from there. I need to do something more than just try to ignore it.”
The Walk of Sorrow’s destination is Ottawa. Once she arrives in the nation’s capital Ballantyne plans to speak about the injustice which has been and continues to be done by the church and government to the First Nations, Inuit and Metis families and children. She also hopes to raise her concerns with the First Nations Child and Family Services Program.
“My walk is not a protest of anything. it's just a walk of healing,” she said. “My hope is to get our people to start talking and rebuilding all their family relationships. From what I understand, when we get there, they are going to have ceremonies for us and they are going to have a healing ceremony for all their community members.”
ALONG THE WAY
Ballantyne is appreciative of the support along the way from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Although the participants can change on a daily basis, there is a core group on the relay-style trek, averaging about 30 to 40 kilometres per day. She said that there are presently 10 people who have committed to the entire distance. Newcomers often show their respect by joining in for a few miles at a time.
“As we pass the reserves and the communities, both non-First Nations and First Nations people come out and join us,” she said. “It’s uplifting that non-first Nations people stop to find out what the walk is about. We tell them and they say, ‘OK, we’ll walk with you.’”
“For accommodations it's usually the local people that are coming together and putting us up in their homes or in hotels.”
Ballantyne encourages people, particularly those of non-Indigenous descent, to find out more about what has transpired in the past regarding residential schools.
“Learn more about what the residential school really was… . Be respectful… that will help you understand our people more,” she said. “You hear about these abuse stories… believe them. It is true what we are telling you. Don't close your mind and your heart to the situations that have happened. Accept what has happened and what was done to us by our churches and our government.
“I just want them to learn more before they start judging our people. I want us all to start healing together and understanding each other and working together because we need to, for the future of our children and our grandchildren.”
Ballantyne is happy with how the trek is going and feels confident she is doing the right thing.
“We have to start healing, we can't keep it bottled up no matter how old we are,” she said. “I'm happy that's happening (and) they're starting to heal. These are elders in their 80’s and 90’s that have been holding this hurt down inside them for so many years. The elders are telling me that I am helping them.
“I believe that once we start healing and talking, that our families will come back together. A lot of our families are torn apart. I just want to bring back our communities and our families… start talking to each other, working together and being together.
Prior to making their way east on Sunday morning, the walkers visited Virden’s Victoria Park where dozens of shoes adorn the stage in memory of the lives lost in Kamloops. Elders prayed and performed a traditional smudge ceremony.
“In the First Nations culture, we’re smudging and praying for the kids and our ancestors to guide us,” Ballantyne said. “You're smudging all your body and you’re using Mother Earth to smudge and you're asking Mother Earth to give you that strength, which is something we’ve always done.”
A Go Fund Me page has been set up to accept donations, which will go towards travel expenses. As of this writing, over $10,000 has been raised.