Halifax-Earl Sack, a traditional elder from the Mi’kmaq First Nation Community of Indian Brook, N.S., throws tobacco into the fire and looks intently at the smoke that rises up in the air.
“Those are our prayers being lifted up,” says Sack, who has been entrusted with keeping the fire lit throughout the four-day Atlantic National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) being held here Oct. 26 to 29.
A huge teepee has been set up near the fire, which was lit at the grounds of Province House, where the Nova Scotia legislature has met since 1819. The teepee is where elders or just anybody can sit and relax after the activities at the TRC event, which is being held at the World Trade Convention Centre.
Sack also led the smudging and pipe ceremonies that signaled the start of the event, which has drawn about 500 former Indian residential school students, their families, representatives of churches, government and the public.
As fire keeper, Sack says his role is to make sure the fire is never extinguished during the event. Although Sack did not attend a residential school, he says survivors are drawn to the sacred fire because of the power of the ceremony. “A lot of them break down and start crying,” he points out, adding, “Some haven’t cried for 20 years. Once they come here, they let loose, and that’s what needs to be done to heal.”
The fire is also where people come to make traditional offerings such as tobacco, sweet grass, cedar or sage; others throw their “tissue of tears” into the fire, symbolizing their desire to end a sad past and hope for a new beginning.
Or, they can simply sit, watch the fire, and clear their minds, says Sack. “The stories my friends have told me are very hard. They told me about things they lost after having been taken away from their parents. They were mentally, physically, and sexually abused. It was unreal.”
The Atlantic region had one residential school, Shubenacadie, which was operated from 1930 to 1956 by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax, on behalf of the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate managed the school from 1956 to 1967.
Sack says he considers it “an honour” to lead the pipe ceremony and be the firekeeper. “It was very emotional for me. I’ve seen the people with their hurts and they want to heal,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for them.”