The community gathered in Bella Coola on April 5 to recognize survivors of residential school. It was a grey morning as chiefs, elders, and community members assembled in front of the totem pole downtown that had been carved four years ago in the survivors’ honour.
The event was called a ‘celebration’ for a reason. While it was intended to acknowledge the suffering residential schools had inflicted on the survivors and their communities, its greater purpose was to begin the healing journey. Survivors were finally given the opportunity to collectively bring closure to this dark chapter in their lives, and, hopefully, begin to let go.
It is estimated that there are just below 100 Nuxalk residential school survivors living today, but not all have been accounted for as many still refuse to share their stories. Although their experiences took place decades ago, it is still too painful for many survivors to face, and not all survivors were able to attend the ceremony. Many people were visibly shaken during the gathering.
Residential schools were a key part of the Canadian government’s policy called “aggressive assimilation”. The government felt children were easier to mould than adults, and the concept of a boarding school was the best way to prepare them for life in mainstream society.
The schools were federally run under the Department of Indian Affairs. Attendance was mandatory, and agents were employed by the government to ensure all native children attended. Many children suffered greatly due to emotional, physical and sexual abuse as well as the pain of being separated from their family and the subsequent loss of their language and culture. Returning to their communities after years in residential schools, many survivors discovered they couldn’t even relate to their own family members anymore.
In 1931, at the peak of the residential school system, there were about 80 schools operating in Canada. In all, about 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the schools.
The two main schools that housed Nuxalk children were St. Michael’s, located in Alert Bay, and the Port Alberni Residential School. Nuxalk children were also sent out to Williams Lake, and Coqualeetza in Chilliwack. Many Nuxalk survivors attended school in St. Michael’s or Port Alberni, or both.
A plaque, affixed to a large rock, was unveiled at the base of the totem pole in Bella Coola. The plaque explains the story behind the totem pole, which was carved by Alvin Mack, Marven Tallio, and Noel Pootlass. Survivor Fred King was wrapped in the blanket that had been covering the plaque by fellow survivors Annie Schooner and Pearl Snow.
The ceremony proceeded to Acwsalcta School, where another plaque listing all the names of the commmunity’s Residential School Survivors was ceremoniously unveiled by Darryl Pootlass Sr and Anne Hans. Survivor Amos Tallio was then wrapped in the blanket.
The school was intentionally chosen as the site for the plaque, as it represents the fact that Nuxalk people now have the choice to send their children to a school that teaches their culture, instead of repressing it.
The plaque also features a circular design of a face in black, red and blue carved by Alvin Mack. This is meant to represent the interconnectedness of the impacts of the residential schools, and the healing that is now taking place.
“The pain and suffering from these schools didn’t stop with the survivors, it was passed on to the next generation,” Mack said. “It’s time for it to stop. It’s time for us to come together as a community and put this pain behind us for the sake of our children.”
Once the plaque was unveiled, the younger children of Acwsaltca School performed a song for the survivors, and the high school students presented them with art. An apology from the United Church for their role in the residential schools, first offered in 1998, was repeated by United Church Moderator, the Right Reverend Gary Patterson.
Later that evening a feast was held in the Acwsalcta gymnasium. After the meal, the work began. The survivors were assembled outside the gymnasium and then officially ‘welcomed home’ as they were greeted by drummers and singers upon their entrance.
Some needed physical support from their family members to complete their entry back home, and many survivors were crying as they were blessed with eagle down.
Once the survivors were seated, Hereditary Chiefs danced in their honour. Each survivor was individually recognized and welcomed home. The men were dressed in vests and cedar headbands, while the women received shawls and cedar headbands. All of these items had been carefully crafted over months by local women in the community.
“Welcome home,” said host Charlie Nelson. “We are so happy you are here so that we can share with you how much we love you.”
As they were honoured, many survivors shared glimpes into their lives at residential school and expressed their gratitude for participating in the celebration. “We lost 10 years of our lives at residential school,” said Louise and Godfrey Tallio. “When we came home, we had to learn to speak our language all over again. Now, we make sure to speak it to each other everyday.”
Some of the youngest survivors included Anne Hans, 45, who attended residential school in Williams Lake, and Dariwan Anderson, 37, who spent eight years in a residential school in Saskatchewan. The oldest survivor is 96 year-old Simon Schooner.
This 60 year gap between survivors exemplifies the generational span that residential schools have crossed. It is said that four generations attended residential schools and many subsequent generations were impacted.
Anderson said that for him, the school was a matter of convenience for his alcoholic single father, who was himself struggling with the effects of his own residential school experience.
“I had a hard life,” Anderson says. “I grew up on the streets of the downtown east side of Vancouver with my mother. When she was drinking, my brother and I would wait outside on the streets. I was bounced around to foster homes until I was ten, and when I was finally sent back to live with me dad, he put me in the school.”
Anderson, who is of Cree heritage, went to Cowessess Residential School in Saskatchewan, until 1993. He believes it was one of the last schools still standing in Canada. “It was right in the community; I could see my father’s house from the school, I could even hear his music,” he remembers. “It wasn’t a horrible place, we had a different experience in those times, but I still left with a lot of anger. Even today, I am still realizing what my triggers are, and I am just starting my healing process.”
For older survivors, the memories can be intensely painful, and the feeling of being unloved was palable. “I never heard ‘I love you’ at the school,” said Beverly Nelson. “I was angry and felt that no one loved me. Now I know that everybody cares and that everybody loves me.”
Once the individual recognitions were completed, Bill Jacobs danced the ‘Transformation Mask.’ Carved by Kelly Robinson, this mask hadn’t been danced in the community for over 100 years, and was meant to represent the survivors coming out of the dark and into the light.
The evening wrapped up with presentations to the organizers and cultural staff for their efforts, and the traditional practice of giveaways concluded the celebration.
“Since the celebration, we have been receiving lots of gratitude from the children of many survivors,” said organizer Audrey Jacobs. “They have been hugging us and thanking us, saying that they are finally beginning to understand their parents’ pain after all these years.”