Along a chain-link fence in Lynn Valley, you’ll see many pairs of orange shoes dangling.
The memorial, 215+ Lest We Forget, began in July with a small bundle of shoes, a can of orange spray paint, and one North Shore mom’s hope to inspire empathy and to keep reconciliation at the forefront of passersby’s minds.
The touching display, which also includes flowers and placards, was created after the devastating news in May that the remains of an estimated 215 Indigenous children had been discovered in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School using ground-penetrating radar. A further four nations have since announced their own such findings, with more than 1,000 unmarked graves now discovered at former residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
“I just really thought it was important to honour all the families and for them to know that we're not going to forget about this,” said Gwynneth Powell Sobejko, the Lynn Valley resident who started the memorial. “It shows the rest of the community that this isn't something that's just passing. We're just scratching the surface here.”
The memorial honours the thousands of Indigenous children who never made it home after being forced by law to attend one of 139 federally funded Indian residential schools operated across Canada from the early 1800s until the last institution closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission says the exact number of children who died at residential schools "may never be known, but the death rates for many schools, particularly during times of epidemic or disease, were very high." Current estimates put the number of children who died at institutions across the country at between 4,100 and 6,000, but the numbers are believed to be much greater.
Sobejko decided to take action after coming across a discussion on Facebook with derogatory comments regarding the Kamloops discovery, cancelling Canada Day and wearing orange in recognition. From there she decided, firstly, to write a comment sharing a need for empathy and, secondly, to find a more meaningful way to spend Canada Day.
So, she put on an orange T-shirt and decided she wanted to visit the memorial created to honour the Kamloops 215 on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Unfortunately, on that day a demonstration on Lions Gate Bridge would change her plans.
“And so, I thought, ‘why do I need to go into Vancouver?’” she said. “’Why can't we have our own memorial here?’
“That's when I decided I was going to gather up as many pairs of shoes as I could for a memorial.”
She started looking around town for a space for the memorial and found the chain-link fence adjacent to the sidewalk on the north side of Lynn Valley Road, just east of Pioneer Square (between Mountain Highway and Institute Road), was the perfect spot.
After collecting some shoes, Sobejko spent Canada Day spray painting them orange and hanging them on the fence with a few placards.
Wanting to eventually have 215 pairs of shoes in the memorial, she took to social media channels to call for some donations.
“There have been community members who have donated shoes, who have dropped off bags of shoes at my house, and who also go directly to the fence and hang the shoes themselves," Sobejko said. "Word got around a little bit, which is great. It seemed to get quite a bit of support.”
There are now around 70 pairs of shoes on the fence and the display has been growing organically ever since.
“I saw a woman had stopped and she was hanging up this beautiful big white wicker heart and there were feathers woven into the heart,” Sobejko recalled. “I just thought, ‘I'm so glad that this is here so people can reflect, and people can, you know, find it in their heart to come and do something beautiful like that.’”
Sobejko never asked the District of North Vancouver for permission to start the memorial but hasn’t had any backlash.
"At this time, the district has no plans to remove the memorial," Cassie Brondgeest, the district's communications coordinator, said.
“We appreciate the community coming together to express support for Indigenous communities through public projects such as this as we continue to grapple with the impacts of the residential school system."
For the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, Sobejko hoped the community might stop by the memorial and reflect or contribute to the display. Residents can hang shoes, flowers or placards on the fence, all that Sobejko asks is that they please don’t put anything on the sidewalk. She said she’d be there, adding more placards to help “educate people about what's happened, so that people can find empathy in their hearts.”
“I think that as we evolve into more informed, wiser people, we realize that we need kindness in our lives,” Sobejko said.
“That includes empathizing with people who have had these atrocities done to them. I think that if we're going to go forward as a united country, we need to hear everybody's stories and honour everybody’s truth.”
She believes everyone has a part to play on the journey to reconciliation.
“I have an Indigenous friend who was very happy I was doing this because she said, ‘Indigenous people are so tired of having to carry this message all the time. We're just in shock right now and it's really important that our allies, settlers, can help to carry this message now too,’” Sobejko said.
The National Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24/7 for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of residential school experiences: 1-866-925-4419.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.