In the small island community of Alert Bay near northern Vancouver Island, hundreds of survivors of St. Michael’s Residential School stood on the idyllic shoreline near the U’mista Cultural Centre around ten in the morning. It was misty as the fog rolled in and perched on the calm water.
It was an enchanting setting, as canoes carrying some of former students arrived at the school for a bittersweet reunion on Aug. 12. As they came closer, one of the chiefs stood up from the canoe and asked for permission to come to shore.
Chief Bill Cranmer from the Namgis First Nation welcomed them in. They paddled the canoe in backwards as a gesture of friendship, rather than one of aggression, as is symbolised by paddling in from the front.
In an age when ceremony is largely dead, they brought blankets to share.
St. Michael’s Residential School was open from 1929 to 1975. Over the weekend, more than 250 First Nations from all over British Columbia representing some 18 bands came to attend the healing ceremony.
From the mid-1800s until the late 1960s, the Canadian government enforced an “assimilation” policy on native peoples. Aboriginal children were removed from their families and communities, taken to these schools and forbidden to speak their native tongue or carry out some aspects of their culture, such as the potlatch.
Potlatches were held as celebrations and mourning, and brought different villages and tribes together. The events could last several days and involved the exchange of gifts.
Altogether, about 160,000 native students passed through the school system. About 91,000 claim that they were physically and/or sexually abused.
At many schools, students were expected to convert to Christianity. Some, like St. Michael’s, continued to operate into the 1970s.
As the former students made their way to the Big House, a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw structure which serves as the site of the world’s tallest totem pole, a fire roared in the middle of the room, making it smoky. The Big House, which had burned down years earlier, still has the distinctive support beams made of totem poles of wild women, bears and thunderbirds.
The parallel support beam holding up the Big House is an immaculate Sisuitl, a Zen-like symbol of balance with two separate serpentine flickering tongues. The central portion is a face with human features. Here, they say that its glare can cause a man to die by turning him to stone, and that one must have balance in one’s life in order to stare the Sisuitl in the eye and live to tell the story. It made for a powerful backdrop as the ceremony began.
“We used to be beaten for speaking our own language. We were removed from our own communities…we need to remove the trauma, so we can develop in the way we want to,” said Chief Cranmer as he addressed the former students.
“We need to move forward and we hope you share with us the notion that this shouldn’t have happened to us or our children. The future belongs to us. We need to rebuild our history.”
Some had attended the school in the 1940s and shared memories of being taken from their villages by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Some remembered coming in on a union steamship.
Students who attended the school came from places like Bella Coola, Bella Bella, from the Haida Gwai, and all along the northern British Columbia coast and interior. Joe Gosnell, a former student, went on to negotiate the first modern land claims treaty with the Nisga’a nation in the Nass Valley in 1997.
As the Coast Salish dancers began preparations for their healing dance, Chief Cranmer said, “We have come to look past what’s happened to you. We have come here for our ancestors. We can find time to move to a better place.”
As a line formed inside the school, the hallways and classrooms brought back memories that had many people bent over and sobbing with tears. Some needed to be physically supported. Relatives and friends clung to one another.
Back at the Big House, another speaker said, “It is time for healing and reconciliation. The colonisers brought an oppression which made us oppress ourselves.”
Chief Cranmer once again addressed the gathering. “We used to line up to pray to a God we didn’t believe in. Our role models weren’t positive. We suffered from diseases brought in by colonisation, the residential school system which hurt our culture and the potlatch prohibition.They took away our humanity,” he said.
In the evening, the crowd stood still in the Big House as Anglican Bishop James Cowan, dressed in formal pink regalia, said that although a formal apology was issued in August 1993, he was there once again to apologise on behalf of the Church for the students who suffered “physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.”
“How many times do we have to apologise?” he asked. “As many times as it takes for you to find justice, reconciliation and healing. We will do it as long as necessary until you feel it in your hearts. The apology has to be uttered as long as you need to hear it, even if certain members of the Church do not feel that it is necessary.”
As Bishop Cowan returned a staff made by former students back to Chief Cranmer as a sign of collateral for that forgiveness, the Chief said, “We do not know if we are yet ready to accept your apology. It may take my people two generations to recover what has been taken away.”
Andrea Cranmer, the organiser of the student gathering, said, “The weekend was about healing our First Nations people from the trauma. We wanted the people here to be together and move forward from there.”
Still, she was disappointed that the federal and provincial governments did not send representatives and said that they “missed an opportunity to bridge the gap.”
Gloria Cranmer Webster, an anthropologist and a former director of the U’mista Cultural Centre, who did not attend the school, noted that, “Some bad things happened to some people, but some good things happened too. We can’t just sit around crying.”
Cranmer Webster was involved in repatriating artifacts seized in 1922 as part of the Potlatch Prohibition. They eventually found their way to the Canadian Museum of Man, the predecessor to the Canadian Museum of Civilisation, and now are part of the permanent exhibit at the U’mista Cultural Centre.
Cranmer Webster also led landmark efforts to revive the Kwak’wala language.
Earlier last week, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell called for a new relationship with First Nations with a view to building a ten-year plan with other premiers and the federal government.
Although many in the First Nations community viewed his call for a referendum on the issue a few years ago as highly inflammatory, there now seems to be a greater willingness to cooperate.
One of the plans for the St. Michael’s site is for teaching the Kwak’wala language and building an extension for the Cultural Centre. Cranmer Webster says, “It could be successful if it is managed properly with a long-term vision.” Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.