Healing Fire Became a 'Magical' Moment

Healing Fire at High School Became a 'Magical' Moment
Posted on 01/06/2022

Column Written by Local Elder Jeff Monague in Barrie Today

Sincere acknowledgement to survivors and victims of residential schools was achieved through a cooperative of Anishinaabeg and Catholic spirituality, says local elder.

A Christmas miracle?

This is the time of year when you wait for magic to happen. Flying reindeer. Presents. Miracles perhaps.

Well, on Friday Dec. 10, 2021, I participated in something historical. It wasn’t proclaimed as such. It wasn’t hailed as an historic event in newspapers. Nor was it the lead story on television news channels.

But sometimes when you are a part of an event that begins to breathe on its own, or something that seems to move on its own, you begin to realize that you are a part of something special. Something magical. Something historical.

I participated in a healing fire organized by myself and a group of educators from the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB). We were there to create a Prayer Circle and make an offering to the Creator, God, however one might understand that to be within their own spirituality.

Prior to the event, the SMCDSB had asked that the student body, from JK to Grade 12, to individually write a prayer to honour the victims and survivors of Canada’s residential school system. These prayers were never read aloud or revealed in any way. They were then sealed and placed into a large container and brought to the healing fire on that day.

So that morning, as I drove into the parking lot of St. Theresa’s High School in Midland, it was a mild +3 Celsius. Warm for December. It was cloudy and the wind blew in from the east. I had a healthy sense of trepidation as I moved to the cargo area of my SUV and began to prepare the ceremonial pipe I carry. The plan was to start with a pipe ceremony at this hybrid event.

In a small open area immediately left of the high school, semi sheltered, away from the wind, stood a small gathering of masked students, educators, and education administrators from the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board. There was a slight tension and nervousness in the air as they milled about chattering in low voices. No one really sure what to expect. And why would they? This had never been attempted before.

We were making history.

I, and a couple of Indigenous student helpers, prepared the healing fire. It was prepared in a small metal bin more suited for someone’s backyard. But, municipal fire regulations would not allow for an open fire pit. We also had on hand a fire extinguisher, again, as per regulations. Still, we found a way to get past the culture clash happening before our eyes.

Once the healing fire had been lit and was giving off a healthy glow of heat, I lifted the pipe in ceremony and offered a prayer in Anishinaabemowin (Ah-nish-in-aw-beh- moh-win), the first language spoken in this territory by my ancestors, the Anishinaabeg (Ah-nish-in-aw-beg).

Then it happened. No one ever said anything. No one ever signaled. But a change happened after we lit the fire and gave the spirits their proper reception and invitation to attend our circle. Everyone relaxed as if in unison. We were there to share one another’s culture, spirituality, in a good way. Without one taking precedence over the other. Sharing a safe, sacred space.

After, the school principal made his opening remarks and acknowledged the healing fire and those in attendance. With all of the best intent, the prayers were placed into the fire and, just like the offerings made through tobacco or any of the sacred medicines that the Anishinaabeg offer to fires, the prayers were given to the flames and the words of hundreds of children would be taken to the Creator and transformed with the dissipating smoke.

Ms. Frances Bagley, the director of the SMCDSB, addressed the small gathering and gave encouraging words of future partnership with the Indigenous community.

Linda McGregor, from Six Nations near Brantford, the Manager of First Nation Metis Inuit Education, also spoke as well as the student trustees. There was a special acknowledgment to Sylvia Norton-Sutherland representing the Beausoleil First Nation Education Department.

I have participated in these types of events throughout Simcoe County over the years. And sometimes these events are merely performative. A gesture. But, on this day, there was a difference.

And as we listened to the student choir close out our hybrid event, I felt nothing but sincere love within that circle. A safe and caring space had been created for all in attendance. No politics. Only a sincere acknowledgement to survivors and victims of residential schools which was achieved through a cooperative of Anishinaabeg and Catholic spirituality. It was truly a magical experience.

At this time of year, we all need a miracle.

My heart is full. Nimiigwechwendam (Nih-mee-gwhech-when-dum), meaning, I am very thankful.

Jeff Monague is a former Chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former Treaty Research Director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the Superintendent of Springwater Provincial Park. His column appears every other Monday.

Read the article on the Barrie Today Website