A Severn Township community is coming together to honour those who died at residential schools and to ensure they continue to be remembered.
Rosanne Irving, an Indigenous student adviser with the Simcoe County District School Board, and other members of her team were looking for ways to raise awareness about the matter after the bodies of 215 children were discovered buried at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Irving suggested 215 rocks be painted orange and placed on the lawn of Severn Shores Public School. The principal and vice-principal “jumped at it and thought it was a great idea,” she said.
It has since become a community effort, with Cumberland Beach resident Angela Foster’s home serving as a drop-off spot for rocks that have been donated by others in the area.
Students and other residents have been washing and painting the rocks in recent days. They will be taken to Severn Shores Public School next week and will be placed in the shape of a heart on the lawn, where they will remain for nine days (215 hours).
In the centre of the heart will be one heart-shaped rock painted red to represent the children whose bodies have since been discovered at other sites in the country.
After the nine days, the rocks will be moved into the library “for continuous learning,” Irving said.
“It’s an educational piece and it’s visual,” she said. “There are many people who weren’t even aware of residential schools. It’s an awakening and people want to learn more.”
The issue is personal for Irving. Her grandmother was at the residential school in Kamloops from 1917-’29, and she never spoke about the experience.
“You know it had to be horrific if she didn’t talk about it,” she said.
“Imagine what the communities were like without children. There was silence. There was no laughter.”
Irving makes sure students are aware of residential schools. The kids can then pass that education on to their parents, who might not have learned about it when they were in school.
An elder told Irving, “We, as Indigenous people, need to speak up and use our voices because our ancestors weren’t able.”
“We cannot reconcile until we know the truth,” Irving said.
The rock-painting project has also been a learning opportunity for kids and adults in the community who have volunteered their time or stopped to ask questions out of curiosity.
“So many conversations have happened since we’ve been working on this,” Foster said.
One of those conversations was with Foster’s nine-year-old daughter, who is Indigenous and attends Severn Shores Public School. After learning about the residential schools, she asked her mom, “So, that could have been me?”
“That really made me take a step back,” Foster said. “Yeah, in a different time and different place, that could have been her.”
When Foster learned of the 215 bodies discovered in Kamloops, it “broke” her.
“I wanted to be able to put my broken heart into something that mattered,” she said.
The rock painting has been a way for her to do that.
She and Irving have been touched by the response from the community and school officials.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” Irving said. “It is wonderful that this community has come together.”
“It’s been an incredible experience,” Foster added. “Having the kids involved has been wonderful.”