Elementary students gathered outside where the notorious St. Joseph’s Mission once stood to return the spirit of survivors whose emotional scars run deep and to commemorate those who are no longer with us.
Donning orange shirts donated by RCMP, around 20 students from Little Chiefs Primary School were joined by four members of the Williams Lake detachment, parents, staff and elders at the site of the former residential school on Sept. 30 to commemorate Orange Shirt Day and to mark the first of what will become an annual Returning Spirit Bike Ride.
Lead teacher JoAnne Moiese told the small group that her mother was five years old when she was taken to attend St. Joseph’s Mission near Sugar Cane.
Moiese said it was an experience her mother never talked to her and her siblings about.
“We wanted to do a ceremony to symbolize having the spirits of our ancestors, our elders, and we talked about some of the struggles that they’ve had,” she said.
“Sometimes when they’re taken away from home they end up on the streets and we say that their spirit is lost.”
Each orange shirt worn was emblazoned with the logo of the Williams Lake First Nation and BC RCMP Indigenous Policing Services. On the back were the names of 31 survivors in memory of.
“I went to residential school and I couldn’t sing my songs and I couldn’t talk my language that was taken away from me,” said Williams Lake First Nation elder Virginia Gilbert.
Choking back tears Gilbert recalled how, as a small child, she tried to run back home from St. Joseph’s Mission.
“I wanted my mom and dad so bad,” she told the group.
“I told my mom don’t tell them I’m here. She said go to bed, and the next morning the police knocked on the door and brought me back here.”
When Gilbert left St. Joseph’s Mission in 1963 she said she did not know who she was and did not want to be Indigenous.
“I was so ashamed of myself,” Gilbert said.
“That’s how much they called us down, all the names they gave us, and all the strappings and the hardships they put on us.”
Gilbert’s painful story is one of many across Canada.
“I got out then and I went on the streets for a while, and I’m just lucky that I made it to sober up and I found myself,” she said.
“I found my prayers, and I found my songs and I found my drum. I’m not ashamed of it anymore. I’m proud of who I am.”
Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars said it meant a lot to be able come together despite COVID-19 limiting the size of the event, noting he was able to speak with Phyllis Webstad earlier in the day, who was unable to attend.
Webstad attended St. Joseph’s Mission, and her story which spurred the annual Orange Shirt Day held Sept. 30 has grown into a worldwide movement inspiring the message that every child matters.
“Every time you hear something new it is almost reopening that wound but in able to deal with that trauma, whether it’s first hand or inter-generational, we have to be able to talk about it, we have to be able to share those stories, and we have to be able to heal and honour them,” Sellars said.
“What we do with these lands moving forward and how we honour these individuals is by doing stuff like this every day,” he said.
After releasing sage on the ground, Moiese ended the ceremony with the singing of a lahal song before Williams Lake RCMP helped ensure the students’ safe arrival back to Little Chiefs Primary School where they enjoyed healthy snacks provided by Yeqox Nilin Justice Society.
“If they stayed back their parents or their grandparents would be put in jail,” Moiese said of students who were sent to residential school.
“So it used to be really quiet in the community, and I think it was really fitting the amount of noise we made when we came back.”