KATARINA WEX PHOTO

RESIDENT-LED TRIBUTE TO RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS’ VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS RETURNS TO WILLOW RIVER PARK

Content Warning: mentions of Residential School violence and discrimination towards Indigenous peoples. For those who continue to be impacted by Residential Schools, visit http://healingofthesevengenerations.ca for resources in the community.  

All along Willow River Park, there are several tributes to the victims of residential schools. Orange ribbons tied onto lamp posts and orange footprints that painted on the trails of the park. The ribbons signal the resident-led tribute which has been in the making for several years at Willow River Park. In 2021, Sheena Merling, or Bin-no-g Man-na-doe Quay, formed a committee of Indigenous community members and allies to create an “Every Child Matters” crosswalk leading to Willow River Park proper.   

“[I] reached out to many communities where I’ve taken part in seeing water ceremonies what that’s about the healing of seven generations when the first 215 children came to the communities’ eyes, they asked for Firekeepers so I went out and offered my time and did some night shifts there and kept fire,” Merling said.   

For two years, Merling has worked as a customer service agent for the City of Kitchener. Her grandfather was Cree and Algonquin from James Bay. Although she grew up knowing her family’s Indigenous background, Merling never felt like she could learn more about it.   

Now, as a mother to a Two-Spirited child, she is learning all that she can about traditional medicines and teachings in order for her children to succeed. Merling and her children continued to learn from the local Indigenous community of KW. When the Every Child Matters campaign started to pick up steam in the region, Merling felt she had the support of her community to act.  

“I went to the City of Kitchener’s Love my Hood project to fund the tributes. So, I applied for $11,500, and built a partnership with the city. I went through all the policies and procedures to get this grant, [because] I knew I didn’t have the finances to support this vision. But at the same time, I built allies and wanted to help engage the community of raw subject because we know this isn’t over,” Merling said.  

The crosswalk is the first tribute that is officially endorsed by the Orange Shirt Society in Canada, which attended the unveiling ceremony. Merling’s team aimed to take the Waterloo Region on a journey of community building, healing, truth and reconciliation for Indigenous community members. They distinguished this as a tribute and not a project, since a project denotes an end-date, and there should not be an end to remembering and healing.   

“It was envisioned as an opportunity really honor the Every Child Matters movement and to help foster conversations among residents and build relationships and just bringing awareness to the impact of residential schools and yeah, the importance of the Every Child Matters movement,” Zach Stevens, supervisor of the Neighbourhood Development office of the City of Kitchener, said.  

The tribute consisted of three elements; an installation of a crosswalk which reads “Every Child Matters” on Water St. and Jubilee Dr., painted on orange footprints which lead to the crosswalk, meant to represent each child that died at a residential school in Canada and an unveiling ceremony for the crosswalk in September 2022.  

“We were humbled to just be playing a supportive role as far as the city’s role in it, and we’re just yeah, really looking forward to seeing more of these indigenous centered initiatives coming to our community and happy to play a supportive role in that,” Stevens said.   

The crosswalk’s design was created by Alberta-based artist Geraldine Catalbas. Her immediate family and friends have been impacted by residential schools, and she hoped that her work would honour them and others who have been affected.   

“This Every Child Matters crosswalk is a tribute towards what we’re all working on. Beyond Orange Shirt day. Right. And the celebration was to honor the survivors that were there, the community as Indigenous and allies being on the land all together,” Merling said.  

Merling believes having the crosswalk close to the monument of Queen Victoria is a step towards reconciliation. She and her team wanted to show people that history cannot be erased, but the path to the future does not have to be taken alone.   

“We recognize that this is just one initiative and there’s a lot more work ahead of us to advance this kind of work and build meaningful relationships with local Indigenous communities. And yeah, if residents want to learn more about love my hood and matching grant, we’d encourage them to connect with us,” Stevens said.   

For those who are interested in applying for a grant for a project that would improve the KW region, visit Lovemyhood.ca