Railway tribute to residential school victims marks turning point in survivor’s complicated journey


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Boarding school survivor June Commanda hated the train.

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The train took her away from her family at the age of seven and brought her to St. Joseph’s Spanish boarding school where she remained for five years. This is also where his younger sister died and his brother was abused.

“My first memory was getting on a CPR train. I had no idea where I was going and I didn’t know I was going to stay there. This would be my home for five years. My sister and I and my younger brother Frank. My sister is dead. My brother and I survived.

On Monday, Commanda was invited to the Ontario Northland Railway Refurbishment and Repair Shop for the unveiling of a new color scheme.

As the bells rang and the engine slowly descended from the shop onto the track, Commanda wiped the tears from her face.

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The locomotive was painted orange with black feathers and the phrase “Every Child Matters” on the side.

The phrase “Every Child Matters” comes from Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation which takes place on September 30th.

“I have mixed emotions,” Commanda said. “When I was at boarding school they took us for a little walk in Spanish and the tracks were right there. what you thought about every day was going home,” she said.

“When they took down the CPR station in Sturgeon Falls, I was so happy. I jumped for joy because of what it meant to me – being away from my family. But now I see this big train here and I want to get on it. And wherever it goes, I want to take a ride.

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Commanda was invited into the driver’s seat where she whistled as she waved to the crowd with a big smile on her face.

“Every child matters – it’s about remembering. I went from hating the train, but now (I’m) very happy. (See the train and the saying) brought tears to my eyes,” Commanda said.

But his childhood memories remain engraved in his heart and in his head.

“You never forget,” Commanda said. “I want no one to ever forget and never want it to happen again,” she said.

“One thing I see today is that young people hate everyone. I heard that the church should be burned down so many times, but I don’t hate anyone.

Sometimes she stopped to find her emotions. Her hands were shaking as she remembered the horror she had experienced with her siblings, especially her brother.

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“There are no words to describe what I saw there. The girls’ school was pretty safe – never heard of any abuse, but with the boys it was (the abuse) endemic,” Commanda said.

“When you were going to bed at night, a priest would come in and take a boy away. You were afraid to sleep at night because you never knew when it was your turn. I don’t know a man who talks about that. They can not.

Commanda said it was a lonely childhood with no toys, few clothes and no food.

She said all the children who were forced into it wondered what they had done so wrong.

And the winters, Commanda said, were the worst.

“It was so cold in the winter. There was a strong wind. I remember we couldn’t even stand near the playground because the wind was knocking us down. We were badly dressed. It was a poor existence.

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Commanda said girls who knew how to sew used leftover rags that were thrown in a bucket and secretly made little rag dolls.

She said they had to stay hidden or face punishment.

“When I could read, it was like I was on an adventure to another place. You wanted to be anywhere but there. There wasn’t much joy, but you didn’t have the right to cry, you would get a smack on the head if they caught you.

The train will leave North Bay on Monday or Tuesday and return to the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission’s Polar Bear Express line. This line runs approximately 200 miles from Cochrane to Moosonee and carries passengers and freight.

“This is the start of a great conversation,” said ONTC CEO and President Corina Moore.

“We have really expanded our services on the bus side, we want to continue this dialogue with all these communities to see what we can do.”

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She said that as an organization, the ONTC will continue to work with the First Nations communities it serves.

“It was cultivated through these discussions. How to continue to raise awareness and not put it on the back burner? And really talk about listening, learning and creating a better future,” she said.

“What better way than to have this traveling every day on our track. A bright orange locomotive that says we care about them, this is a safe space for people, we want to listen and learn and keep improving to create a better future.

Moore said it’s a lick of paint and looks phenomenal, but “it’s about raising awareness. It’s about listening and learning with an open heart. There’s so much history here and I don’t think people realize the impact it has on our generation and our children’s generation.

Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod said it was amazing when he saw the train rolling.

“The only thing going through my mind right now is the positive impact this is going to have on my communities. Our communities are struggling to discover unmarked graves,” he told local media. .

“It’s such an incredible gesture. It’s going to touch the hearts of our communities.

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