Hurt. Pain. Trauma. Healing. These were some of the words and emotions featured in the many speeches and conversations about residential schools that took place on Tla’amin traditional territory on May 31.
A large crowd gathered at Willingdon Beach in the evening to honour the 215 First Nations children whose bodies were recently discovered in an unmarked, undocumented burial site at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, built on the territory of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. The gathering also honoured residential school survivors and those who died at such institutions across the country.
The discovery of the unmarked burial site, attendees heard, has been a painful trigger for survivors of the residential school system, which was set up with the explicit purpose of “aggressive assimilation” of First Nations children who were separated from their parents. The last school closed in 1996.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the residential school system amounted to an act of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples by the Canadian government. According to testimonies of thousands of survivors, students suffered horrific abuse, neglect and violence.
Speaking at the Willingdon Beach gathering, residential school survivors from Tla’amin Nation shared their experiences, and the lasting impact those experiences continue to have on Indigenous people in Canada.
Tla’amin elder John Louie, who attended the Sechelt Residential School for eight years from age five to 13, told the gathering that students had their names replaced with numbers. Louie was number 15.
“All the boys had odd numbers, and all the girls had even numbers,” he explained. “We were never able to hold our mothers, or grandmothers, or fathers, or even to hear the words ‘I love you.’ Even with my wife now, it’s very hard for me to say ‘I love you,’ because when we shared things in those places, it was a lot of punishment.”
While hearing about the discovery at Kamloops was deeply painful, speakers said it was not surprising, and more unmarked burial sites are likely to be found in the future.
Elsie Paul, a Tla’amin elder who survived two years at the Sechelt residential school, told the gathering: “It’s a very sad moment in history, with all this revelation, about the residential school. I’m not surprised that it’s happened, and I’m sure Kamloops is not the only one.”
Paul led the event with a prayer, first in Tla’amin, then in English. It went, in part: “We ask for good energy, that we all hold hands, and that we support one another, that we come together in a good way.”
During the gathering, attendees were invited to display children’s shoes alongside cedar boughs, which organizer Cyndi Pallen explained hold a special significance in Tla’amin culture.
“The Tla’amin people hold the cedar boughs as a spiritual protection,” Pallen told the gathering. “I thank my parents and my grandparents for carrying on that tradition because it means something to our people.”
Following the speeches, attendees gathered along both sides of Marine Avenue to observe two minutes and 15 seconds of silence, in honour of the 215 children, before joining in with singing and drumming.
Walk from Lang Bay raises awareness
Earlier in the day, qathet resident Aaron George organized a walk from Lang Bay to the Tla’amin soccer field to show support for the families of the 215 children, and those children whose bodies have not yet been found.
Pallen, who met George and other walkers at Willingdon Beach at around noon on Monday, told the Peak, “When you do something that’s visual, people ask, ‘well, what are they doing?,’ so it raises a lot of wonder and curiosity, and that’s what we want.”
George sought no recognition or acclaim for initiating the walk. He stressed that attention ought to stay on residential school survivors, those who died and their families.
At the end of the walk at the soccer field, Tla’amin citizens described the impact of residential schools on the nation.
Verna Francis, Tla’amin Justice coordinator, told those present, “I think about our elders who left us, without being able to deal with that pain that they carried for so many years, and the impact that it had on our people. The separation, the disconnection from the families, and I witness that every day.
“The reason why I do cross-cultural work with non-Indigenous agencies is to understand where we came from - where did we come from, the residential school and colonization - and to be more culturally sensitive to our people when we’re working with them. We are stuck for a reason. The generational impact that residential schools had on our people, that’s what we’re dealing with today.”
After the walk, George respectfully stated that he did not wish to deliver a speech. Tla’amin citizens, who gathered to deliver a drumming procession for the arrival of the walkers, said George did not have to say anything, because his actions spoke for themselves.
Tla’amin citizens cloaked George in a blanket, signifying love and appreciation, and thanked him for organizing the walk.
Despite not making a speech, George did have something to say for fellow settlers living in Tla’amin territory.
“I can hug my kid every day; thousands of families out there can’t,” George told the Peak. “What I hope will come of it is investigations and getting people’s families reconnected with their kids.
“You have to be willing to use the correct verbage, for starters. You’ve got to be willing to be comfortable to cozy up to the word genocide. Ask yourself if you can cozy up to being a person who’s possibly a little bit complicit through silence or through ignorance. Ask yourself those questions, before you ask someone to tell you their story.”
Hegus comments on day’s events
In a statement, Tla’amin hegus John Hackett said the Kamloops school was attended by many Tla’amin children, including former Tla’amin chief Hew’kin Joe Mitchell.
“We need to stop viewing what is happening in Kamloops as a discreet and historical event because residential schools are more than a ‘dark chapter’ in the history books,” stated Hackett. “For people of Tla’amin, these are not abstract ideas happening to far away people. This is us, our parents and grandparents.
I believe with more local knowledge, there would be less resistance to meaningful reconciliation. I believe this starts when all of our kids learn the true history of this place.”
Hackett encouraged Tla’amin Nation’s friends and neighbours to read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report, and to support the nation by advocating for ground imaging at all other residential school sites, including in Sechelt.
The hegus also noted that City of Powell River’s namesake, Israel Powell, bears responsibility for the residential school policy. During his time as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1871 to 1888, Powell oversaw the opening of five residential schools in BC.
“Perhaps residents of our territory can now understand why Tla’amin would like to disassociate our homelands with the name of Israel Powell,” added Hackett.
A previous version of this story referred to the unmarked, undocumented burial site as "mass graves", which has been corrected.