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A day that began with rallies that flooded streets orange in honour of bodies buried in unmarked graves at residential schools ended with the toppling of a statue that has stood for more than a century in front of Manitoba’s legislative building.
The Queen Victoria monument was brought to the ground and covered in red handprints Thursday afternoon following calls for Canadians to spend Canada Day reflecting on the country’s racist history.
As teens and young adults whooped and rushed to take selfies atop the felled statue, Caroline Clearsky stood quietly.
"I can feel the energy," she said.
"It’s powerful and profound," her niece Tracy Clearsky agreed.
The energy Clearsky felt, she said, was one of pride. Her mother attended a residential school in Pine Creek, and Clearsky grew up feeling the consequences. This is a signal things are finally changing, she said.
"I’ve lived my whole life to be united with my people."
First unveiled in 1904, the statue was commissioned in recognition of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The monarch reigned over Canada when treaties were first negotiated with First Nations and the federal government adopted the residential school system as policy.
A statue of Queen Elizabeth on the grounds of Government House, the official residence of the lieutenant-governor, was also toppled.
Carol Polson, a longtime Winnipegger originally from Thunder Bay, said she was saddened to see the face-down statue of Queen Elizabeth, which was designed by Leo Mol.
"It’s troubling and disturbing to see this because I believe it’s entirely unnecessary. We need to find the right kind of dialogue for this issue and these concerns, but today of all days is not the day to do this. I’m sorry. It doesn’t make the kind of statement whoever did this thought it would."
Earlier, amid a sea of orange in front of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, 12-year-old Lacy Bird clutched a photo of her great-grandmother.
Elizabeth (James) Bird was a residential school survivor. Unlike more than 1,000 people, many of them believed to be children, recently discovered in unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools, she made it home.
"I think it's important that she's remembered along with (all of the children)," Lacy said. Looking out at the crowd of more than 100 people, she said she was glad to see a large turnout.
"It makes me feel glad that a lot of people support in remembering the babies that didn't make it home," she said.
Hundreds of people wearing orange Every Child Matters shirts gathered at several events in Winnipeg and across Canada Thursday in lieu of Canada Day celebrations to show respect for residential school survivors and for the as-yet-unidentified children found in unmarked graves in B.C. and Saskatchewan.
There were two marches on Thursday: the Every Child Matters march that ended at the Manitoba Legislative Building, and No Pride in Genocide, organized by Treaty One Nation, that started at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and ended at the Peguis Urban Reserve at 1075 Portage Ave., which featured speeches by residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders.
Treaty One Nation spokesman and Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches called on Canada to officially recognize as genocide the realities of residential schools. He described discoveries of hundreds of children's graves as a "watershed moment" in the legacy of residential schools, one that is disturbing not just to Indigenous people but to everyone.
"We demand Canada come to terms with this and declare this as genocide," Meeches said in front of the museum Thursday afternoon.
Grand chiefs, politicians and community leaders spoke about the still-recent history and ongoing trauma in Indigenous communities, urging Canadians to read and act upon the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action. For many, the rally was not just for sombre reflection — it was a triumphant show of strength.
Former Assembly of First Nations regional chief Kevin Hart drew cheers from the crowd when he said regardless of racist government policies, "we're still here and we're still strong."
"I need you to be the voices of those lost and forgotten ones. We cannot let them be silenced anymore," he said.
For William Elvis Thomas of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, being surrounded by a swell of orange was a powerful moment.
"It's heartening to see this kind of experience unfold right before my eyes. It's been such a long time coming; it's very touching, very emotional."
He attended residential school at Nelson House, and on Thursday, his family was with him as the crowd marched nearly five kilometres from the museum to the Peguis Urban Reserve on Portage Avenue.
Asked what meaningful action would look like to him, he said constitutional changes are likely necessary, as well as improved education.
"I am hopeful that things will change for the better," he said, adding, "We need to make sure the education systems talk about the real truth of how this country was built."
Holding up a sign that read, "Children should not be buried in schoolyards," Lucy Antsanen, who is Dene from Lac Brochet, called on the Pope and church leaders to apologize, and on the Canadian government to take real action.
"People belittle it and say, oh, they died of TB, they died of measles. In the first place, should the kids even be there, taken away from their families, their language, their culture?" she said.
"Our souls are hungry, and we have to speak up. If we don't rally, government is not going to do anything about it."
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.