Walkers arrive in St. John’s Park almost exactly on schedule. They arrive in a big orange wave, all dressed in shirts of the same color. They arrive led by the Drum, and the Horse Riders, and the Mud Tendrils that wind up Main Street, clearing the path to the park where the powwow takes place.
“Are we all going to go into the park, guys?” A young woman jumps laughing as she observes the scene.
In a way they do it, in a way they don’t. For hours, people flock to the park from all directions. They flock by the hundreds, then by the thousands. They flow until the fields are less green than orange, until the lines for porta-pots extend by the dozen, until the whole park is filled with laughter and conversation.
The crowd looks like Manitoba. It contains faces of all ages, all races. Most of the people here are indigenous, but on this day they are joined in solidarity by people from all nations; a movement, generations to come, to call for a way forward, to call to action on reconciliation, to demand justice for indigenous peoples.
So many people are showing up this Thursday to participate in this call, the park itself can hardly accommodate them.
They surround the white tent at the heart of the event until the dancers inside are visible only by the feathers that crown their badges, if at all. Until the beating of the drums could only be heard as a muffled hum, if at all. Until the voices of the emcee and the powwow speakers were muffled and lost to most of the spectators outside the tent.
It’s OK, however. Because on this first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the crowd gathered in memory of the children and survivors. They came together to mourn what was taken, and also to honor what has endured: the Indigenous nations, cultures and spirit.
To see this spirit rise, vibrant and full of life, just watch the children play.
At the east end of the park, children play with a view of the Red River. They play under the watchful eye of vigilant parents. They wear orange shirts, some sizes too big. They spin and sway, begging their older siblings to push them a little higher, screaming in joy when that wish is granted.
A boy climbs to the top of a climbing boulder, then turns to glow proudly at his father.
“Do you remember when I did that?” The child shouts.
His father looks up with a slight grimace. “I know,” he replies. “But be careful.”
Under the trees, a boy blows bubbles which disperse on the grass. Behind the white tent, a girl of about six stands tall and proud in her fringed dress. Nearby, a man cranes his neck to see the dancers, while his son holds his hand; the boy happily discusses what he would do if he had superpowers.
There are children who eat ice cream, children who stroke dogs, children who bang drums. Children run down hills until their braided hair is adorned with yellow leaves, until adults have to rub the grass from their cheeks, until they come to rest at the bottom of the hill in a tangled, chuckling mess, before running back up. Try again.
Every child counts, says the crowd, whether it’s the words carved on their shirts or the songs that flow from their throats. Thinking about what they’re fighting for are times like these. Honor the children who have never been able to experience these moments and declare, in unison, that no child should ever have their joy or love stolen from them again.
Inside the tent, the master of ceremonies interrupts the process to make an announcement: two little girls have lost their parents, he says. He asks if anyone recognizes them. NDP MP Nahanni Fontaine takes one of the girls by the hand. But it’s hard to hear from outside the tent, and even harder to see, so for a while at least there is no meeting.
Yet these children are safe, they are with caring people, they are protected. They’re lost for a little while, maybe, but their community is all around them. We see them, we hold them, they will return to the family that loves them. And that is what all children deserve even though, for too long in Canada, a right has not been granted to all.
At the end of the powwow, people start to return to their cars or walk home. As they leave the park, the sound of drums escapes from their ears, then the sound of a thousand conversations. In the end, the last song you hear in the breeze, which drifts from the park to the street, is the children’s laughter.