Reconciliation Ally: B’yauling Toni
- Betty Ann Adam | September 20, 2021
A terrifying dream propelled B’yauling Toni to learn about Indian Residential Schools and help other non-Indigneous people learn too.
Toni, whose Cantonese first name was given by his Taiwanese mother, drew a large TikTok following and media attention by cycling to all 21 former residential school sites in Saskatchewan between August 2 to 25.
“It’s so important that non-Indigenous people give recognition to the genocide that happened in Canada. I find, with non-Indigenous people, it’s hard to open that conversation,” Toni said in a recent interview.
Toni, 20, was aware of the news about unmarked graves at former school sites when he went camping in July with his brother and sister-in-law, Trinity Morin of James Smith Cree Nation, on an embankment beside Diefenbaker Lake.
“We didn’t have tents or anything, we were just sleeping basically on the grass. And in the middle of the night, I wake up because there’s someone drowning, a little boy in the water and he was drowning. So I get out of my sleeping bag and I scramble down the side of this embankment to the water and when I reached the water, I realized there’s not just one child in the water, there’s hundreds and hundreds of children in the water. When I reached the water, they all turned towards me and started moving towards me. I just remember their heads looked like torches. They had a light emanating from their head and they’re all rhythmically moving toward me in the water and I started screaming out, trying to get my brother and sister-in-law, who were up on top of the ridge and I’m crying out so loud that I waked myself and I’m in my sleeping bag at the top of the ridge (not) down at the water, but in the exact same place where I was in my dream.”
“At first I was just terrified. And then it got me thinking and wondering about the things I don’t know about, the place I live, the things that aren’t spoken about,” Toni said.
As a cyclist who has circumnavigated the globe, Toni decided, “as a settler, as a non-Indigenous person, to use what I’m good at, use my platform to be actively involved in reconciliation.”
He connected with the Orange Shirt Society, which helped him access information about the schools that were in Saskatchewan; contacted the First Nations nearest to each site and sought permission to visit.
Another Indigenous non-profit, Chokecherry Studios, accessed a small federal grant for a workshop in which he, Morin and 19 Indigenous youth made pairs of infant moccasins.
Upon arriving at the communities, Toni offered tobacco and presented a pair of the moccasins. He was often moved by the generous welcomes he received. Elders, Chiefs or other Knowledge Keepers toured him around the sites. They often fed and housed him or invited him to sit in a pipe ceremony.
He learned that the school sites often exist within communities and cannot be forgotten.
At Sturgeon Landing, near Flin Flon, “they had a residential school that burned to the ground in the 1940s and 41 students perished in the fire. The Church just left the building. They left the remains and built a new school in Manitoba, but there was never anything done to the site, so if you go there today there’s still old artefacts: there’s the foundation, the bunk beds are still there, anything metal, the washing machines, the boiler room, everything is just there. It’s just been left to decay.
“The remains of the children were never removed from the building after the fire so they’re also still there. And that just sits right in the middle of the community,” Toni said.
As he pedaled 3,000 kilometres from Whitewood to Ile-a-la-Crosse and 19 sites between, he felt and thought.
“A lot of sadness. Very, very heavy feeling. It was difficult mentally to travel to all these sites and to feel the weight of the things that happened there and you can see the suffering right in front of you in the community.
“When I go to these places, I’m greeted by groups of people and the majority are survivors. In a way, they’re all survivors, intergenerationally they tell me stories and they share with me.
“It’s weird to think about because it’s nothing to the suffering and trauma that survivors deal with on a daily basis.”
Toni says it’s important that non-Indigenous settlers take the first step toward reconciliation.
“It’s really on us. We need to be out there learning and giving recognition (of) genocide in Canada… It’s hard to open that conversation. No one wants to hear that they may have done something wrong or their ancestors did something wrong.
“We need to facilitate that healing journey and that’s something we can do only if we have education. There’s no way to build empathy and understanding for the issues that Indigenous people face on a daily basis if we don’t have an understanding of what happened.”