Baby-sized grey sneakers, pink rainboots, small moccasins dusted with tobacco, a pair of white canvas sneakers.
Hundreds of pairs of shoes lined the front steps of the Manitoba legislature Monday, in memory of the 215 children — some as young as three — recently found buried in an unmarked burial ground at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
To residential school survivor Gerry (Gramma) Shingoose, the canvas sneakers were all too reminiscent of those she was made to wear during the nine years she spent at Muscowequan Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
"They really triggered me when I seen that," the elder said, sitting under an umbrella on the legislature lawn Monday afternoon.
Shingoose has long-shared the story of her years in the residential school system, including testifying in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
On Monday, she joined elders, survivors, and community members to grieve, commemorate those lost to residential schools, and honour those who survived.
"I was feeling really heavy and hurt from that (B.C.) news, it triggered me," Shingoose said. "Coming here the last couple days is so calming and peaceful. It really feels good to have the community come and support, and also to acknowledge the 215 children."
Since Sunday, Winnipeg’s Indigenous community has been burning a sacred fire in the shadow of the Queen Victoria statue on the legislature lawn.
Two teepees stood tall against the symbolic backdrop of the legislative building, adorned with orange ribbons, hosting elders in ceremony. The fire will burn until a final feast Wednesday.
"The sacred fire is significant to Indigenous people when we lose loved ones," Shingoose explained, as others sang and drummed around the flames.
"In this case, we lost 215 children, so we’re burning this sacred fire to help them with their journey to the spirit world."
For organizer Alaya McIvor, the four-day ceremony is an experience of healing, truth-telling, love, and resilience. She had laid a pair shoes at Oodena Circle at The Forks on Sunday night with the Bear Clan Patrol, and was overcome with a desire to respond to the tragedy in an actionable way.
"Those shoes really hit my heart," McIvor said. "I couldn’t just stay there silent."
After speaking with community elders, she loaded a bin with two bags of firewood and a fire pit, and began a ceremony on the legislature lawn.
Hundreds of shoes were moved to the legislature from Oodena Circle, and community members continued to add new pairs.
As a seven-year survivor of residential schools, Susan Caribou said the recent news brought flashbacks and nightmares of her days at Guy Hill School in The Pas.
Standing in the shadow of a teepee on the lawn, Caribou described her time in residential schools, where culture and language were forcibly stripped away.
Pulling back her bangs, she pointed to a scar on each eyebrow, from razors used to shave away children’s hair, and to scars on her hands where fingers were broken but never allowed to properly heal.
"This residential school life, we’re still living it. It’s a battle every day," she said.
Caribou has passed by the shoes, but can’t stand in front of them yet. She will when she’s ready, she said.
"I’ve been emotional since they were found, having nightmares again. It brings back a lot of hurt," Caribou said through tears. "I’m very grateful because our community, our people always come together when there’s tragedy."
McIvor stressed all Manitobans are welcome to attend the legislature grounds ceremony, to honour survivors, and hear the stories of those affected by the residential school system.
"We don’t want apologies. We’re sick of those, they’re worthless to us. They want action. They want every ground of residential schools searched, because they know for a fact there are bodies on the grounds of each residential school," said McIvor.
Communities across Manitoba joined in mourning the tragedy over the weekend. On Sunday evening, two Winnipeg neighbours hung a string of 215 orange hearts across their shared lawn to draw awareness to the children lost. The number 215 was spray-painted across the city, including on boards covering windows at the former Bay building in downtown Winnipeg.
"It’s hard to hear those stories, but they need to be heard and they need to be told. Manitobans have an opportunity here to learn the truths from those who survived. To come and listen, to come and be here, to come and support," McIvor said.
The shoes, more than 400 pairs and counting, will be donated to Ikwe Widdjiitiwin Crisis Shelter in Winnipeg, to support Indigenous women and mothers fleeing domestic violence.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.