First Nations from surrounding communities and as far away as Bella Bella and Kitimat gathered Thursday at Sugar Cane to mark the 20th anniversary of the Residential School Survivors Society.
It was Williams Lake Indian Band’s turn to host the society’s AGM, which they marked with an elders’ tour, a community dinner, drumming and presentations.
The society provides education, workshops, art therapy, information sessions, health and support services. said finance administrator Christine Johnson who works out of the North Vancouver office and is originally from Alkali Lake.
Aside from North Vancouver there are offices in Williams Lake, Downtown Vancouver, Penticton, Kamloops and Terrace.
“We are still feeling the impacts of residential schools today,” said Chief Mike Archie of Canim Lake. “There’s a lot of history there but our strength will come in how we move forward.”
When Archie attends elders gatherings he sees bunches of people together and often those people attended residential school together.
Canoe Creek elder David Sampson has been clean and sober for 17 years, however, said the journey wasn’t easy.
“A lot of the gang I hung around with are dead because of alcohol-related accidents,” he said.
His first memory of residential school was getting slapped against the wall for speaking the Shuswap language.
“Speak English you heathen they told me,” he recalled. “When I arrived the only English words I knew were money, pop, candy, orange and bread.”
Today he’s worked on letting go and sustaining his peace of mind. Maybe the forgiveness will come later, he added.
“I once heard someone call me a poor Indian when I was a kid and I wasn’t even poor. We just hadn’t embraced the almighty dollar.”
Dorothy Boyd described herself as an “Urban Native.”
When her home burnt down in Anaham Reserve, she moved into Williams Lake and has been there ever since.
She spent years looking for her father and brother who were living on the streets, she said.
“After 30 years of searching I found my brother on skid row in Vancouver and brought him home,” Boyd recalled. “I learned that love is more important than money and challenged myself to believe that.”
Today she loves who she has become, someone no one can take away from her, she added.
Getting people away from alcohol and drugs is one thing, but loving and embracing them is the hard part because so many First Nations people didn’t love themselves.
Her native name means “Red Willow” because she has been told she can bend as far as the ground.
Third generation residential school survivor Marilyn Belleau said the experience was hard on her family.
“We are still getting to know each other and we have such a wide range of memories,” she said.
Belleau described how she had to adjust to coming from living in a cabin in a meadow with horses and chickens at five years of age to the St. Joseph Mission Residential School.
“It was a hard story,” she recalled. “We had to steal food to survive.”
Belleau was one of five women who took a Catholic priest to court for sexual abuse, an experience that was equally as difficutl.
Taking a deep breath, she looked around the hall and said she’d also been through breast cancer.
“No matter how hard it’s been, I’ve survived,” she added.