An Esket Elder walked home — both figuratively and physically — from the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School to Alkali Lake during the weekend, as part of his own healing journey.
Francis Johnson Sr., 71, had planned to participate in an open walk being organized by his community at Esket, however, that event was postponed to Aug. 20-22 due to the provincial state of emergency and wildfire situation in the region.
“I was preparing myself physically and mentally to do this,” Johnson said, who attended school at St. Joseph’s from 1957-59 and again from 1963-65, of making the almost 70-kilometre journey.
“It was a long one. I’d been training, doing five-hour walks, so I just decided to go.”
Johnson titled the walk ‘Pelqilec,’ which translates to: ‘I’m Going Home.’
Johnson said even before the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School he had already thought about doing some kind of walk for residential school survivors.
“When the 215 kids were found I got impacted,” Johnson said. “I was pretty angry. But I had already learned to channel my anger, and I do that through traditional hoop dancing. But, you know, those things — people burning churches and stuff like that — I don’t think that’s the right way.”
Johnson began his trek on Friday, July 30 beginning at 9 a.m. from St. Joseph’s Mission. He walked for most of the day before taking a break, then resumed his walk again on Saturday, and one final time on Sunday.
The walk, he said, was another way for him to channel his anger into something positive as he hopes to raise more awareness about life at residential schools.
“It’s very emotional for me,” he said. “When you’re walking your mind is thinking of all kinds of stuff.”
Johnson recalled an instance where several children at St. Joseph’s Mission planned to run away in around 1964.
“I almost went with them,” he said. “It was maybe three or four students who ran away, but I decided not to go. Those guys that ran away, they got caught maybe a week later, and they were really humiliated when they got back. They were (shaved) bald headed and had words written on their heads, and they were made to wear a dress for about a week and paraded in front of everybody.”
Johnson, who has six children, was joined for his healing walk by his daughter, Alita, who operated a pilot car along the route.
During the walk Johnson carried a family staff, which he said symbolizes the unity of his family, strength and the dignity of his family.
“It was a time in my life when I was really stuck in one place, and experienced some really, really difficult trauma there,” he said.
“For me, many times I did want to come home, and now I have. Me as a little boy, me as a little child, has now walked away from that as closure.”
Johnson was also recently featured in Performances in the Park Listen Live Series.