Many survivors have spent half of their lives talking about residential schools, researching residential schools, writing about residential schools and healing, said Charlene Belleau, manager of the Indian Residential School Unit of the Assembly of First Nations.
Belleau has spent the last 30 years advocating for the stories to be told, and for settlements that bring some sense of closure.
“The reason we need to move on and turn the page is because we’ve got bigger battles ahead. If dealing with residential schools is helping us to move forward in what work we still need to do, it’s important,” she said during a session at the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School reunion held the Williams Lake Indian Band Pow Wow grounds that honoured RCMP and other investigators into criminal cases.
“We’ve got the William case that is coming up locally. We need to pull together and unite as we’ve never done before and be able to work together. When the Tsilhqot’in go for title of their lands it’s going to affect all of us,” Belleau said.
A lot was lost through residential schools, Belleau said, but there’s lots to gain by moving ahead from the experience.
Recalling the first disclosures of abuse at residential schools Belleau said those were difficult times, but advocated the pain of the residential school survival cannot be passed on to future generations.
While holding perpetrators to account, many First Nations went through feelings, initially of shock that there could have been sexual abuse at the residential school, then the anger that it could have happened by priests and by nuns.
Belleau said her own mom was really mad at her for years until Father McIntee stood up in court and pled guilty.
“She didn’t want to believe me, but she believed the priest when he pled guilty.”
Retired RCMP officer Bob Madrigga, who served in Williams Lake between 1985 to 1992, recalled arriving in Williams Lake at a time when people were just beginning to come forward with allegations.
“I want to honour the people who came forward because when they did, we could actually take the investigations before the courts.”
Former RCMP investigator Bob Grinstead, presently in Kenya doing human rights investigations, sent a written statement which Madrigga read from.
“I have also reflected on my past involvement and the many challenges many of us faced together. My memories are so varied. There’s no escaping that there were stressful and emotional moments, however I believe now, as I did then, that it is important work and necessary for the purpose of exposing those past abuses and opening the door to individual and community healing.”
Grinstead said the experiences he gained guided his views from then on.
With the support of so many of the people who were at the reunion, he was able to understand the depth of abuse and hardships endured by so many First Nations people and developed an appreciation for the challenges involved in coping with the past and working toward healing, he noted.
“The difficulties I experienced were minor compared to those endured by survivors. I so admired the dedication of those who put the need of others ahead of their own.”
When he first visited the empty and closed school, with broken windows, and a cold wind blowing through, he discovered countless student cards complete with photographs.
“There were so many faces that were in many cases hiding dark secrets,” Grinstead wrote. “In the months and years to follow, I would look at these photographs hundreds of times as they proved to be an invaluable source for locating former students.”
He met with many survivors who were ready to open the door to healing, which he thought was “amazing” because in those early days there was little support and no group to share experiences or find strength.
“For many years now I have been working in developing countries and post-conflict support of human rights. I know I would not have taken this path had it not been for the important residential school work and the bonds we developed.”
John Pilszek, now with RCMP operations support in Williams Lake, was transferred to the detachment in 1987, and worked with a unit responsible for investigations into the residential school.
“Charlene was instrumental in assisting Bob Grinstead and myself, climatizing us to the customs, and what went on in the residential schools,” Pilszek said.
As an investigator Pilszek interviewed the former students and prepared files for the courts.
“One of the problems we ran into was that for the people who were coming forward, many of them were older and it was a difficult time, and the people responsible for committing crimes against them had moved on to other places in the country and some of them had passed away.” From his experience, he saw “it was very clear that the students from St. Joseph’s Mission were the ones that came forward first.
“They really brought to the forefront the abuse that occurred in residential schools. That was really the impetus for investigations to then take on a provincial tone.”
He said investigations are still going on today so it’s not forgotten.
“My hope is that you can find some healing and move on.”
Addressing the crowd Belleau encouraged the survivors to enjoy each other’s company and share stories over the reunion weekend.
“The funny things you tell about what you did to those priests and nuns as well because I heard lots of stories. It’s time to laugh about some of the things that happened because there were good times as well and I think we need to cherish that,” she said.