Vankleek Hill’s Main Street Community Park was the site of a memorial to the children of Indigenous residential schools last Friday, as the village was visited by the Spirit Children’s Walk 2021.

Al Harrington and Jessica-Lee Dinovitzer, along with Al’s son 13-year-old son Nation, are walking from their homes in Kanehsatake to Sault Ste. Marie. They are traveling with two wagons, one being pulled by their sled dog Jazzy.

The trio hope to be arrive at their final destination, the former site of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, by September 29 to join ceremonies being held at the site September 30 to mark National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day. The school was closed in 1970 and is now run by Algoma University as the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre

“Many of Nation’s relatives… a lot of them were shipped out to the Shingwauk residential school,” explained Harrington, of why the group is ending their trip at the site. “Nation’s great grandfather and uncle were ones who ran away from there and came back home, but they were with a couple of others who never did make it. They died along the way.”

Born in 1976, Harrington himself was part of what is known as the 60s Scoop – a period in which a series of policies were established in Canada that allowed child welfare authorities to take Indigenous children from their families for placement in foster homes, from which they would be adopted by white families. The 60s Scoop began in the 1950s and continued into the 1980s.

Harrington says he was one of the lucky ones from the period. After he and his twin sister Alanis spent time in foster homes before moving in with his grandparents, they were adopted into a white family, the Harringtons, in Huntsville, Ontario.

“We had a good family,” Harrington remembers, however living outside of an Indigenous community was difficult. “Back in the 80s… my sister and I were the only tan kids, and the abuse that we got… it wasn’t nice growing up.”

Harrington said the discovery of 215 graves at the Kamloops residential school over the past summer reopened old wounds. He hopes the trip can help mend some of those wounds, as well as provide awareness to the general public of the tragedy of Canada’s residential school system.

“(The discovery) brought a lot of outrage to our Nations, because it’s something again that Canada tried to tuck under the rug,” Harrington said solemnly. “I’m hoping this time around that they’ll finally put this all to rest.”

The group is collecting donations along the way and also through their Facebook page and through a GoFundMe page they have set up. Donations can also be made via email transfer to [email protected]. Money raised will help to pay expenses for the trip, and construct a monument ‘Every Child Matters’. All funds left over will be donated to groups in support of the survivors of residential schools. Harrington said his son Nation will make the final choice of the recipients of the funds once the trip is completed.

The trio left Kahnesatake on Wednesday, September 8, passing through Vankleek Hill on Friday, September 10, where they were slowed by two flat tires on one of the wagons. After receiving help from some local residents, they proceeded on, arriving in Alfred the following night and held a memorial at the former St. Joseph’s Training School for Boys.

“The place definitely has a dark energy,” Harrington wrote in a Facebook post while visiting the site. “Unmarked graves possibly could be there as well.”

Even in the early stages, the trip has taken its toll and the group took a day to rest in Alfred on Sunday, September 12, meeting locals and explain the history of residential schools while staying at Evergreen Campground and Resort in the village. As of Monday morning they were traveling along Highway 17 and hoping to reach Rockland by early evening.

“It’s our third day and we’re really feeling it,” said Harrington, during the group’s stopover in Vankleek Hill. “With COVID a lot of us got lazy sitting around the house, so getting back into action and getting into shape is taking a toll.”

While they hope to make it to Sault Ste. Marie by September 29, no one will be disappointed if the trip takes a bit longer, as it is not a competition.

It’s about awareness,” Harrington noted. “Every step that we take our thoughts are on those children who tried to run away from the abuse and get back home.”

“When we start feeling low we think about the children. We’re lucky; we’re pulling a cart with gear – they had nothing.”

While they entered Vankleek Hill mostly unknown, the trio were welcomed and encouraged by multiple local residents who had either heard about their walk, or had met then on the road along the way. They’ve also received support on Facebook

“We get lots of posts and lots of people wanting to donate,” said Dinovitzer. “One woman cried and said she thought we were doing a beautiful thing.”

While the bulk of the journey is still ahead of them, all three said their journey so far has lived up to their expectations.

“I think it’s already been a success,” said Harrington. “From the first day we’ve created awareness.”