Esk’etemc Chief Fred Robbins said the news about the unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School site is proof of what a lot of First Nations people have been saying for many years about the children who never came home. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

OUR HOMETOWN: Advocate and survivor

Chief Fred Robbins is a residential school survivor who has advocated for truth and reconciliation

Esk’etemc Chief Fred Robbins said the revelation there are unmarked burials of 215 children at Tk’emlups te Secwepemc is upsetting news but he is glad it is coming to light.

“The spirits of the children can now return back to their communities and be where they belong,” he told the Tribune Monday, May 31, where he was singing and drumming with students outside of Esket’s Soxoxomic Community School.

When the news broke Thursday, May 24, he was very angry.

“As I started to think about it, the anger regressed, but from time to time, when I hear another elder tell their story, I get angry. They had friends that never returned. First Nations over the years have continued to say, ‘a lot of our children didn’t come back from that school,’ and this is proof.”

A sacred fire was lit outside the school on Saturday, May 26, for community members to gather, sing, pray and share stories.

“I’ve been looking after the fire during the day and Larry Johnson looks after it in the evening,” Robbins said.

Community member Dave Belleau arrived at the sacred fire one evening and said children attending residential schools who were told to be quiet by the priests and nuns emerged finding it hard to tell their stories, Robbins said.

“Now it’s going to get easier for them to tell their stories.”

He said students from Esk’et attended the former Kamloops Residential School, including his mom Marlene Chelsea who was 16 or 17 at the time.

“They had over 700 students in Williams Lake and they had too many children so they sent some to Kamloops. They chose from the senior dormitories because they had over 150 seniors. They had a draw and mom’s name was pulled.”

A long-time advocate for truth and reconciliation in Canada due to the residential school legacy, Robbins said for far too long the federal government, churches and provincial government have denied First Nations the access to all of their documents.

He spearheaded getting a monument placed at the St. Joseph Mission residential school site near Williams Lake and in the city’s Boitanio Park in 2013 to honour those who were lost and the survivors. He also worked with Phyllis Webstad to establish Orange Shirt Day.

Robbins attended St. Joseph’s from 1975 to 1981, arriving when he was six years old.

Before St. Joseph’s he attended the band-run day school in Esket, but said he had an aggressive teacher there who was very mean.

“The last straw was when she grabbed my penis and dragged me across the floor. I would not go to that school. Literally they had to drag me every day and as soon as recess came I took off and I hid. I wouldn’t go back.”

His grandmother decided he should go to the residential school if he was not willing to attend the day school.

While attending residential school he was a victim of abuse. Not from teachers, but from other students and he received physical and mental abuse from the Oblate priests and their supervisors, he said.

Read more: B.C. Catholic archbishop apologizes for ‘unquestionably wrong’ residential schools

Robbins has been in politics since 1999. In 2014 he stepped away because his wife was awaiting a kidney transplant.

“She finally go her transplant done and I still stayed out of politics. To be honest I wasn’t really keen on running again, I was happy working out on the land, just being out there on a daily basis.”

One of the elders approached him and said she was nominating him for chief again.

When he replied that he did not know if he wanted to be chief again, she looked at him and said, “if not you then who?”

He was re-elected in 2018.

“Everybody is in all different locations in their healing circle for sure,” he said of the overall well-being of his community. “There are some that are struggling, and there are some that are leaders in certain areas, but it’s a constant struggle. We are not going to be healed overnight, this is going to take generations.”

In 2013, Robbins was the third person to receive the Key to the Cariboo Chilcotin from the Cariboo Regional District and in 2017 was the recipient of a BC Achievement Award.

Read more: Former Chief Fred Robbins named BC Achievement Award recipient

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