The Voice of the Grandfather

By Colin McGregor

Jim Hemsworth, a man in his sixties, exudes the aura of a solid guy, proud of his heritage, convinced of the value of his Mi’kmaq nation.

This Saturday morning, he waits under the George-Étienne Cartier monument in Jeanne-Mance Park, which means that he is looked down on by an angel on the slopes of Mount Royal. A scorching sun beats down on him. Slowly, people in orange shirts gather for a march through Montreal to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“It gives a voice to those they’ve tried to silence,” says Hemsworth, a technician and pilot of airplanes and helicopters. The first Indian residential school (called an “Indian school” in Eastern Canada) opened in 1830; the last only closed in 1996. His mother was a survivor of those schools, where tens of thousands of indigenous people suffered at the hands of their overseers. To date, they have found more than 10,000 unmarked graves in Canada, and they have still not examined the grounds of three-quarters of Canada’s former residential schools.

When they discovered unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, four years ago, Orange Shirt marches began. But before the march, Hemsworth, whose Mi’kmaq name is Sa’je’k, waits to hear his grandfather’s voice.

“We name our drums according to indigenous tradition.” The name of his largest drum: The Grandfather.

Sa’je’k

He explains to me that he is part of the Traveling Spirit Drum Group, which meets every week to play traditional drums. “We used to meet at the Montreal Native Friendship Center, inside, but one week we decided to come out here.”

They went to the woods of this park on Mount Royal, to a secluded place amidst the noise and traffic, and were blown away by the drumbeats they produced. Particularly the Grandfather, who represents the voice of his ancestors communicating with them.

Today, Hemsworth is waiting for their big drum, the Grandfather, to be brought to the foot of the monument before they can begin their walk through Montreal.

The drum arrives. It takes two people to take it up the stairs to the foot of the monument.

Sa’je’k, kneeling, performs a purification ceremony by burning sage.

A loudspeaker playing indigenous music is brought to silence. As the angel still looks from overhead, Hemsworth and a few others take drumsticks out of a bag and begin beating the drum.

People in orange shirts and others, including journalists, gather around the drum in a wide circle to watch. The sound of drumbeats, in unison, reaches the forest behind the monument where Sa’je’k, and his club first discovered the resonance they produced on this ancient mountain, once a holy site and territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation.

Once the voice of the Grandfather can be heard across the generations, reconciliation and healing can begin.

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