Amid the quiet reflection of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Cindy Anne Kooy-Hogg was grateful to hear some noise.
In 2021, the Canadian government declared every September 30 to be the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It’s a chance for all Canadians to understand the realities of what happened in the residential school system, the impact it’s had on generations of Indigenous people in our country, and the strength of those who survived it.
On Sept. 30, 2021, Cindy Anne — a materials coordinator with PCL’s Edmonton-based Industrial group — was on a project site in Grande Cache, Alberta. At noon, the crane horns sounded to honour to those who were lost and those who survived.
“I cried a lot that day, but I was so pleased when PCL sounded the crane horns. I was so proud of PCL for doing that,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Thank God. Finally, finally, with this Truth and Reconciliation Day, they’re saying that it happened.’”
Cindy Anne has a direct link to the residential school system. Her mother, Betty Anne Blackbird, lived on the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation on Treaty 2 land in Manitoba. When she was just five years old, RCMP officers gathered all the school-aged kids at the church on the reserve, loaded them into a cattle truck and drove them 64 kilometers away to the residential school in Birtle, Manitoba. The children – including Betty Anne, her sisters Jean, Doris and Bernice, and her brothers Dan and Joe – had to stand for the entire trip. “They just took the kids,” Cindy Anne says. “Grandma and Grandpa had no choice.”
“Momma calls the school the little jail for children. She talks about the little kids’ dorms and how they separated her from her siblings, how they changed the way they dressed and how regimented everything was. There was a great deal of loneliness, and there was abuse.
“I’m thankful there’s finally recognition of what happened to my mom and all the First Nations people who were subjected to residential schools — not only here in Canada, but across North America and other colonized nations,” she adds.
Josh Girman is PCL’s manager of Indigenous relations. He’s based in the Winnipeg office, about a three-hour drive from the First Nation where Betty Anne lived. He says that discoveries of remains buried on former residential school sites have shone a long-overdue spotlight on the damage the system did to Indigenous people and their communities.
“At PCL, we call ourselves community builders, and the Indigenous community is very much a part of our community and our company,” he says. “They’re our clients, our partners, our coworkers. It’s important for PCLers to have awareness and knowledge of the history, and to have the cultural awareness of what people’s lives are like today.”
In his role, Josh works with every one of PCL’s Canadian districts, supporting project pursuits and deliveries and developing partnerships with Indigenous communities. In 2021, PCL joined the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, which works to build the skills and capacity of Indigenous people through business and improve the economic self-reliance of Indigenous communities.
While PCL has committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in all facets of its business, Josh says Truth and Reconciliation go far beyond that.
“It’s not just a DE&I thing. It’s core to who we are as a business, who we serve and who we are as citizens of this nation,” he says.
Betty Anne — who turns 83 in October — locked her residential school memories away for a long time. But now they’re starting to shake loose. “She has nightmares about running away from the school and being chased,” Cindy Anne says. “She ran away from Birtle when she was 15 and walked the 64 kilometers home along the railway tracks. Grandpa hid her when they came to take her back. Once she turned 16, she didn’t have to be at the school anymore and she could help out on the homestead.
“Many memories are of the bad things. It amazes me that she lived through it.”
Cindy Anne once attended a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada hearing with her mother. She heard other residential school survivors get up and tell their stories: “I've never been so upset and angry. It was hard to hear what those kids went through.”
When it was Betty Anne’s turn, Cindy Anne says, “Momma stood up and gave the most eloquent speech I’ve ever heard. When she finished, she said, ‘I forgive you. I can’t forget, and you can’t take it away from me, but I forgive you.’ And I thought, ‘You are the most amazing lady.’”
PCL has worked with Indigenous communities on numerous infrastructure and school projects over the years, and Cindy Anne is proud to be part of a company doing such good work.
“It’s always been important to me that companies get down to the grassroots with different groups. It’s about getting involved at an educational level and understanding that it’s a crucial and important part of Canada’s history,” she says.
Josh says that PCL projects in Indigenous communities are about more than just walls and roofs — they generate benefits like employment, skill development and places to gather.
“Every one of these projects has a downstream effect in terms of economic activity,” he says. “We’re focusing on how to funnel those economic opportunities into the communities so we’re maximizing the benefit.”
This year, Cindy Anne plans to take Sept. 30 off and drive with her mom to North Buck Lake, near Boyle, Alberta. There, they’ll spend some quiet time among nature, which is one of Betty Anne’s favourite places to be. She loves birdwatching, gardening and fishing. Cindy Anne says she’s “five-foot-nothing — a tiny lady, but a pistol.”
“When I told Momma that I was asked to share her story at work, she was so pleased. She said, ‘People need to understand that it happened.’
“My momma is my best friend, and I'm so proud of her.”