A brand new state-of-the-art community school at Esket (Alkali Lake) is for children and elders, said Chief Charlene Belleau during Sxoxomic School’s grand opening Monday.
“We want the elders to be a big part of our school,” Belleau said as she invited the elders to come up to the front and stand in a circle so the children could present gifts to the elders.
“Your children and grandchildren are letting you know that it is OK to speak Secwepemctsin,” Belleau told the elders. “They give you permission to leave behind the residential school experience so that you can teach them.”
The students sang a healing song, which Belleau said was indicative of the fact the students and elders will continue to heal together.
“Whatever your experience has been, the loss of language and the loss of culture has not happened,” she said. “It is still with you. You are standing here, you are sober and you are strong.”
After the song, all of the students went around in a circle, giving each elder a hug.
“This ceremony was very special,” education co-ordinator Irene Johnson said after the hugs. “A few months ago we had a meeting and one of the elders asked if she could speak the language. You no longer have to ask permission. We are asking you to speak the language because unless you speak it we are not going to learn.”
During the celebration Belleau acknowledge many people for helping bring the dream of the new school to reality including McFarland Marceau Architects Ltd. of Vancouver for designing the school and True Construction Ltd. of Quesnel and locally hired workers from the community.
The new school has many windows and lots of wood, including columns made from local trees.
In the main hallway there is a circle pit close to windows where students can sit together. Its floor features artwork that was designed by young Esket artists Wes Dick and Leona Belleau.
Among those people presenting gifts to the school was Stswecem’c Xgat’tem Chief Patrick Harry who presented Chief Belleau with sage, a feather and a smudge bowl.
“We hope these can be used in the classroom for the benefit of the students,” Harry said of the gifts.
Chief Belleau said there are plans in the works to transform the old school into an education centre where students can complete Grade 12 or possibly take university level courses.
“We still have dreams to provide higher levels of education for our community,” she said.
The council has also approved to move ahead with a new daycare centre that will house an elders’ centre and a youth centre.
Last year the community received a new water treatment plant and plans to build a new administration building and a biomass energy project that would heat many existing buildings in the community, Belleau added.
“I have been telling people all along we deserve this, we deserve nothing less,” she said.
The celebration closed outside the school with a stick song that was written by culture and language teacher, Floyd Dick.
“Two years ago I went fasting up at the warm spring,” Dick said. “On my fourth day I was meditating and these Aspen trees bent over and all these sticks fell out of the trees. When the trees bent over and gave us all these sticks it was a sign for us to give the sticks to all of the children so they could practice the language.”
Elder Bridget Dan taught language in the community a decade ago and said she was happy about the new school.
“It’s the first time they have acknowledged the Secwepemc language and culture and are making it a main focus by getting the children working with the elders,” Dan said.
For many of the elders, the celebration was very moving and Elder Sally Chelsea said when she hugged her granddaughter Erica Chelsea the tears were coming down.
“I was crying because I was so happy,” Chelsea said.