A First Nations community in the Cariboo Chilcotin is organizing a three-day event this summer to bring the spirits of the children home who attended St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, just south of Williams Lake.
The former school was started by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1891 and closed in 1981 and, according to Esk’et Chief Fred Robbins, is recognized as being one of the worst residential schools in Canadian history.
“St Joseph’s Mission was ranked No. 2 across Canada with sexual and physical assault,” Robbins told Williams Lake City Council Tuesday evening, July 6 where he appeared as a delegation.
The mayor and councillors sat quietly and listened to Robbins recount graphic stories told to him by his grandmother of children whose lives were lost at the mission. He also spoke of the difficulties facing his community members since the news of the 215 children discovered at Kamloops.
“There’s going to be lots of discussion over the next few months, this is a marathon it’s not a sprint, and I think it’s important that the city recognize the fact that St. Joseph’s Mission was one of the worst in Canada,” Robbins said.
“I am a residential school survivor, I was sexually assaulted and physically abused … my healing journey began when I forgave my mom and my dad in 2013 for sending me to that awful place.”
Robbins appeared before council to invite the city’s leaders and business community to get involved and to support their upcoming Spirit Walk which will see participants walk from the mission, to Williams Lake and on to Esk’et over three days.
Robbins said Esk’etemc is known for the way it leads when it comes to healing journeys within the community and that’s what they want to do with the Spirit Walk.
“We want to release a lot of energy, a lot of anger, a lot of frustration that community members have been feeling after the 215 children were found in Kamloops … we have been saying it and saying it and saying it and finally Canada recognizes that it’s the truth, that these awful things happened.”
Front of mind for the community is recognizing the life, and death, of a child named Duncan Sticks from their community who froze to death running away from the mission in 1902.
“He was a seven-year-old boy who ran away from the residential school and was found just to the west of Felker Lake. He was found there, and there was an investigation done and what they found was he suffered from numerous beatings, starvation and he ran away to get away from that in 1902.”
The Spirit Walk will include a memorial placed for the child where he was discovered.
Doreen Johnson, director of land and natural resources for Esk’etemc (Alkali Lake), told the Tribune the plan is for everyone to walk or ride from the Mission, near Williams Lake First Nation, to Esk’et between July 30 and Aug. 1 with stops in between.
Day 1 will start with breakfast at the mission at 8 a.m. and a 10 a.m. departure following speeches, a short lunch at Williams Lake First Nation’s community of Sugar Cane and end at the Williams Lake Stampede Grounds where participants will camp overnight. Day two will start at the Stampede Grounds and end at China Lake on Dog Creek Road, again with camping on site.
On day three walkers and riders will proceed to the Alkali Pow Wow Arbor, for closing and honouring ceremonies, a feast and lahel games.
Johnson said one of the main inspirations for the walk is ensuring the memory of Sticks, who was from Esk’etemc, is kept alive.
“This boy was only found because he froze to death. There was an inquest that revealed he had been beaten and starved since his arrival at the Mission three-and-a-half years earlier.”
Johnson said while there are no longer any people with the name Sticks in the community, he has a big family that still lives there.
Johnson herself was the fourth generation family member to attend the mission.
She arrived in 1959 when she was six and stayed for 10 years.
“I was custom adopted and my adoptive parents did not want me to go, but my birth mother did and signed the papers.”
There was an ‘awful lot of physical and verbal abuse’ at the school, she said.
When her parents came to visit, they travelled over the mountain by horse and wagon from Esk’et.
“We would visit them in the parlour,” she said. “They sat at one end and we were at the other end with a supervisor there the whole time.”
When she was in Grade 6 a classmate, Marvin Jeff, drowned after falling through the ice at a lake near the school.
“It was on the weekend, and Jerry Quilt tried to save him. Jerry retrieved Marvin’s body. We went to school on Monday and nobody told us anything. Marvin’s desk was empty,” Johnson said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. Jerry never came back to school the next year.”
Johnson said Esk’etemc is reaching out to the Cariboo Regional District and the city for support of the event.
All nations are invited to participate and pre-registration is required.
There will be counsellors and traditional healers on site throughout the entire event.
Anyone wanting information is asked to call the Esk’etemc office and ask for Ashley George at 250-440-5611 or email email@example.com.
Robbins said they are also looking for volunteers to assist with during the entire weekend.