SASKATOON -- A woman from Saskatchewan’s Muskoday First Nation marked National Indigenous Peoples’ Day with a tribute to those affected by residential schools.

Ronalda Vandale gathered 215 pairs of children’s shoes to hang on the Muskoday bridge on Monday. The shoes represent the remains of 215 children found last month at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C., but further ground radar searches have revealed many more unmarked graves.

Vandale’s mother was a residential school survivor.

“I often asked her about her experience at residential school, but she would never share it. She would always tell me the same thing, over and over again: ‘It was just school,’” she said.

“When my mom passed away in 2011, I never got an answer.”

Almost a year ago, Vandale’s son died of an opioid overdose in Vancouver. She joined the Canada-wide advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm.

The organization hung hundreds of shoes on a Vancouver overpass to remember victims of substance use, so Vandale decided to carry on that initiative to remember residential school students who never returned home.

It also helps people grieve those losses, she said, when many traditional Indigenous ceremonies have been held back due to COVID-19.

“When we don’t have those ceremonies, those spirits just wander around, the elders told us,” said Vandale.

“It’s through our ceremonies and through our traditions and through our elders that we have the ability to heal and to mourn and to carry on.”

The community held a pipe ceremony on Saturday to remember and honour residential school children.

Vandale brought two pairs of children’s moccasins for her and Muskoday Chief Ava Bear to hang on the bridge on Monday.

“You can see the impact that it makes. It was very emotional this morning tying the shoes because you think about all of those children who never made it home, all of the parents who probably never knew what happened to their children,” said Bear.

And, as much as it hurts, Bear said the truth behind residential schools is still being revealed through searches of former sites.

“Many people think this is just the tip of the iceberg – There will be more.”

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.