A time for self-learning and reflection: northern Ont. chief

It's a haunting thing to walk down a street in Spanish, Ont. that was once home to two residential schools.

Jesuits ran St. Charles Garnier College and St. Joseph Residential School out of the tiny northern Ontario community for decades before they finally closed.

The boys' school is long gone, now marked by a monument, while a demolished husk is all that's left of the girls' school.

Children were sent to the two schools from as far away as Manitoba and Quebec, many were shipped to the community by boat.

The community is on territory in which Chief Brent Bisaillon calls home. Bisaillon, one of the youngest First Nation chiefs in the country, lives in nearby Serpent River First Nation.

He too had family, like his grandfather, who was subjected to the residential school system.

"We've been doing a lot of ceremony here over the past couple months, so I think my feelings have kind of changed and evolved as that's gone on," Bisaillon said. "It is a little off-putting. It's a little weird being here and recognizing what the school symbolized, but again, we've also been doing a lot of ceremony, lots of re-energizing ourselves, healing ourselves through this whole process, and so it's a mixed bag of emotions."

Bisaillon welcomes the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as an important day to reflect and continue that conversation of healing.

He's hoping Canadians will do some of their own learning about the past.

"I know a lot of times people reach out to Indigenous people to try and get them to teach them about reconciliation and things like that and that's exhausting. So my hope would be that Canadians take up the challenge of learning on their own, reading the Truth and Reconciliation Report, there's already documents and readings out there. Today is a solemn day for a lot of Indigenous people and we need to respect that," the chief said.

Bisaillon told CTV News he's hopeful for the future. The property where the former residential schools stood has become a piece of land where they have gathered and started those important conversations.

It's a similar sentiment for Stacy Sauve who lives in Spanish but works in nearby Cutler on Serpent River First Nation.

Sauve is the artist who created the wood carving out of the tree that now stands on the grounds of the former boys' school. It was dedicated to all residential school survivors.

"In this area, the carving was to say a lot was taken. It's called the 'Free Spirits' tree carving so it's basically everyone is free to do what they want to do, free to create what they want to create," Sauve said.

She said a day for truth and reconciliation was welcome news to her.

"I hope that it means people need to pay respect and look at things in a different way, in a more spiritual way, and respect where you are, where we are, this is native land," Sauve said.

"It's a time of great tragedy and remembrance but also it could be a time of great healing and moving us forward, and so that' s my hope for this area," Bisaillon said.

The chief anticipates there will be a search one day in the community of Spanish for unmarked graves.

"We're taking a slow approach to this because we want to make sure we have healing supports. If children are discovered, what do we do with them? There were many nations (sent here), from Le Pas, Manitoba to the northern Cree communities of Quebec, and so there's a lot of information gathering that we have to do to ensure all communities are heeded in some way and we can take account for that," he explained.

St. Charles Garner College closed in 1958 while St. Joseph Residential School closed in 1962.