Small Steps Down Reconciliation Road

Two emotional Survivors' Flag-raising ceremonies signaled the beginning of Truth and Reconciliation Week at the Ford Windsor Site on Sept. 26. Here, Essex Engine Plant's Kevin Bell consoles Brenda Renaud following her sharing with attendees the painful toll left on her family by Canadian Residential Schools. Photos by Michael Michalski

Several small steps down the road to reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous Peoples were marked Sept. 26 at the Ford Windsor Site - each one laden in pure, raw emotion.

In two separate ceremonies, one each at the Windsor Engine Plant Annex and Essex Engine Plant, the Survivors’ Flag was raised high as an expression of remembrance, meant to honor residential school Survivors and the lives and communities impacted by the residential school system in Canada. Each element depicted on the flag was selected by Survivors from across Canada, who were consulted in its creation.

The schools, which first began in 1831 and ended in 1996, aimed to educate and convert Indigenous youth and assimilate them into Canadian society. Approximately 150,000 Métis, Inuit and First Nations children were removed from their families during this time and forced to speak English/French instead of their ancestral languages, disconnecting the children from their culture and traditions. An estimated 6,000 children died while at these schools, although official records remain incomplete.

In recognition, Canada formally established the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in 2021. It occurs annually on Sept. 30. Also known as Orange Shirt Day (which began in 2013) the color represents the story of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, whose new orange shirt given to her by her grandmother for her first day of residential school in 1973 was taken away upon arrival and never returned. 

Along with addresses from local Ford and Unifor leadership, the Windsor events were highlighted by moving testimony from those within the Windsor Team that were personally affected by the decades-long practice, each one bravely sharing uncomfortable truths in the hopes of creating a better tomorrow for all Indigenous Peoples.  

“My grandfather on my father’s side was Odawa. My mother’s side was Ojibway,” began Brenda Renaud at the noon-hour Essex Engine Plant event, as a blustery Autumn wind swirled around some two dozen attendees. 

“My grandfather was one of seven children and never found out where his sister went after. They were in the Residential Schools. She was there – and one day, gone. They never found her,” Renaud said, tears welling in her eyes. 

“To the day of his death, he cried for her every day, so this,” she said, motioning up to the waving orange and white Survivors’ Flag raised moments earlier. “This means a lot.” 

Renaud was hardly alone, either in emotion or experience. Fellow teammates Steve Skov and Patty Kiyoshk similarly shared their personal story for the Essex event. Skov, who also spoke at the Annex flag-raising (held inside the plant near Engine Assembly) was joined there by Darryl Charron.

“I never do this (public-speaking) ever,” said Kiyoshk after taking to the podium. The 27-year Windsor Site team member from Walpole Island, First Nations Reserve told of her mother, who was in a residential school in Sault Ste. Marie. 

“I can’t say she’s a survivor because she never recovered, and none of this (type of reconciliation activity) took place before she died,” she said. 

“I am very proud of this (flag being raised). I would never believe that one day that I would be standing here one day at Ford Motor Company being so thankful for being a Native American. Thank you for asking me. I can’t believe I’m this brave! I’m never this brave!”

Earlier in the day at the Annex, Charron and Skov each spoke of their respective grandmothers, both of whom paid a heavy price – just for marrying non-Indigenous men.  

“We believe she attended the Residential School. We do not know this for sure, as she lost her status when she married a non-Indigenous person and she was prevented from continuing her Indigenous heritage customs,” said Skov. “She never spoke – ever – about the reserve.”

Each ceremony also featured the founder of the newest Ford Employee Resource Group, the Indigenous Peoples Network, Jeff Jones. The Windsor Site has similarly established its own chapter, led by Dianne Kellett. 

Participants and other attendees gather in front of the newly-risen Survivors' Flag outside Essex Engine Plant.

“It’s a beautiful day today and it’s not just because of the flag that we raised together. Earlier, as I was driving in, I saw a hawk fly overhead. That’s a good symbol of a new beginning,” said Jones to the Essex crowd. 

“Today is a very important step for all of us, together, as a company. Our goal is to work with employees who share the heritage or feel that they want to be allies to Indigenous Peoples globally. We are really excited to make a difference both in terms of education and cultural awareness.

“Being able to recognize and turn over a new leaf and start the healing process is an important step forward for the whole country, but more importantly, for many individuals, including many right here on this Site.”

“It is our sincere hope that this flag, along with other activities to come during the week, will act as encouragement to everyone here on Site to reflect upon, discuss, and commit to this Canada-wide journey of reconciliation,” said Tom Reeber, Windsor Site Manager, who began each ceremony with a Land Acknowledgement in honor of its original Indigenous inhabitants. 

Reeber concluded the Acknowledgement with a pledge on behalf of Ford Leadership: “We are dedicated to honoring Indigenous history and culture while remaining committed to moving forward respectfully with all First Nations, Inuit and Métis.”

“I’m very, very proud that my employer and my union are leaders in taking this first step – and we do know that, for a lot of people, it is just a first step, and it’s been a long journey,” added Tim Little, Vice President of Unifor Local 200.  

“I want you to know that you can count on us to keep it going. We have your backs, we support you and we love you as brothers and sisters.”

The flag-raisings were the first of several ways the Windsor Site will honor Friday's National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, including a monetary gate collection across all shifts. Proceeds will be donated to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. In addition, all personnel are encouraged to wear orange to raise awareness to the Day – as well as share photos of such with your Team Manager or Michael Michalski at mmicha54@ford.com. A moment of silence will be held at 11 a.m.. A special edition of the ‘Windsor Learning Series’ will be issued by email and printed handout for all Team members on Wednesday, with further information circulated Sept. 30. For more on the Survivors' Flag, please visit nctr.ca/exhibits/survivors-flag. For more on the Windsor chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Network, please contact Dianne Kellett at dkellett@ford.com or Ashley Fleming at aflemi35@ford.com.