A few dozen locals came together at Bracebridge Falls this September to tie thousands of orange ribbons in honour of the Indigenous people who lost their lives at residential schools and on Oct. 22, they came together once again to remove the ribbons in preparation for a community quilt project.
Bracebridge resident NisoMakwa, a two-spirit member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nations whose name means Three Bear in English, started the ribbon display with his partner as a way to meditate. The project gave him a way to honour those impacted by the residential school system while also reflecting on his connection to his own Indigenous heritage. He originally hoped to keep the ribbons up permanently, but after locals raised concerns about them falling into the river, a fellow Indigenous community member came up with the idea of turning them into a community quilt.
“It’s a really, really big honour to see that a project that I started by myself brought so many people together,” NisoMakwa said. “I didn’t realize that there was actually that much support in Bracebridge when I moved up here in the last year, and with the ribbon ceremony and stuff like that, all the people that came out, it was beautiful.”
NisoMakwa said he’s deeply humbled that his efforts have grown into such a big project with so many supporters, so he wants to thank everyone who jumped on board to help out. It’s meant a lot to him to get in contact with the Muskoka Indigenous Friendship Community since moving here last year, he said, and the ribbon project helped him connect with group members even more.
The project has also given him the chance to help educate non-Indigenous people in the area. He’s experienced support as well as prejudice throughout his time in Muskoka, so he encourages non-Indigneous people to learn more about residential schools as well as Indigenous culture in general. On top of reading important documents like the Truth and Reconciliation report, he urges people to be curious, do research and ask questions.
“If you’re curious, ask, and if I don’t know the answer, then I can probably direct you to someone who will, or at least give you an idea of what research to do for yourself,” he said. “There’s a million different avenues to get the proper education.”
Gravenhurst resident Theresa Buker is Métis and founded the Muskoka Indigenous Friendship Community in 2018 after feeling disconnected from other Indigenous people in the area. The group has been meeting weekly ever since. They’ve grown to the point of having a steering committee and they’re working toward the creation of a Friendship Centre in Muskoka.
Having lived in the region since the 70s, Buker said she’s seen a level of racism that some people try to pretend doesn’t exist, and part of the problem is the way Indigenous history has been taught in Canada for so many years.
“The discovery of these children has opened eyes on a lot of various levels and it’s making communities aware that we were all lied to in school,” Buker said. “The history books were lies. It didn’t tell the whole story. It only told one version of the story.”
After so many heartbreaking discoveries at residential schools across the country, Buker said it’s been overwhelming to see the tremendous community support for the ribbon project. About three dozen people came out to the original ribbon tying event as well as the ribbon removal and participants included children and seniors as well as District Social Services workers and members of the Bracebridge Indigenous Advocacy Circle.
Buker was proud to be able to start both events off with a smudge ceremony to showcase their traditional heritage and said it was also great to have children involved in the ribbon removal since it landed on a day-off for students.
“It was very heartwarming to see the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community come together to put this vision of NisoMakwa’s into reality,” Buker said. “He had worked hard at putting up about 2,000 ribbons on his own, but in September when we were able to all gather and put up the other 4,000 plus, even he was blown away by how quickly it was done and how many people wanted to support the vision.”
The idea of creating a community quilt from the ribbons recently came to Buker in the middle of the night, which she credits to the Great Creator. She woke up and immediately knew that the ribbons needed to be a quilt made by many hands.
She also felt the quilt should be gifted back to the Town of Bracebridge to create a permanent display for the community and to thank the town for allowing the project to go forward. Deputy Mayor Rick Maloney has since reached out and offered his support as well as help with additional materials, Buker said.
The creation of the quilt is still in the early stages as members of the Muskoka Indigenous Friendship Community share ideas about what the final project should look like. Along with thousands of ribbons, people left feathers, beads and other tokens of support, so they’re still figuring out how to incorporate all the different elements.
What they do know is that no two squares will be the same. Each piece will be interpreted differently by the person putting it together, Buker said, and it’s both a great privilege and a big responsibility to make sure each part is repurposed into a meaningful display on the quilt.
“It’s going to be a community story,” she said. “And that is a huge responsibility to bring respect back for the survivors and those who didn’t survive, as well as trying to find a way to bridge the gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous in this area towards reconciliACTION.”
If you have been affected by residential schools and need support, contact the 24-Hour Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
To learn more about the ribbon project, read the article below.