Plans are falling into place for the St. Joseph Mission residential school commemoration project.
Speaking to the Williams Lake and District Chamber of Commerce, Esk’etemc (Alkali Lake) Chief Fred Robins said the project deals with the impacts and effects from the residential school.
The school was in operation from 1891 to 1981.
Robbins, a residential school survivor, arrived at the school when he was seven years old, remaining there until it closed.
Pointing to the exit signs in the meeting room at Signal Point Gaming Centre, he said if the lights went out, he would be found cowering in the corner.
“Hearing the door latch at an exit sign means sexual abuse to me because I knew something was coming through the doors to sexually abuse me.”
The residential school experience continues to impact First Nations in the region. Robbins said there are 600 survivors living in and around Williams Lake.
“There are a number of events happening this spring. The commemoration of St. Joseph Residential School will provide foundation for ongoing shared work of healing and reconciliation in the Cariboo region.”
Events will include a kick-off on April 26 during a School District 27 professional development day.
On May 16 and 17 there will be a two-day conference held at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake campus.
The dedication of two monuments — one at the former residential school site and one in Boitanio Park — will also take place.
“One at the residential school site will commemorate those who didn’t make it to the healing journey and for all of those who are affected. The one in the park will be dedicated to the shared journey.”
Following the conference, there will be a reunion May 18 and 19 of former residential school students.
An inclusive planning committee comprised of former students, First Nations chiefs, councillors, tribal councils, municipal and regional government leaders and staff, educators from the school district and TRU, and the RCMP, has been working to co-ordinate the project.
Initial funds of $50,000 are being provided by the federal truth and reconciliation commission for the project.
Since then additional funds have come in from the Cariboo Chilcotin Beetle Action Coalition for $50,000 and Interior Health for $50,000.
“We have enough funds to cover the cost of two monuments and enough funds to cover the cost of our guest speakers: National Chief Shawn Atleo, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief Ed John and Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould,” Robbins said. “We also have Justice Murray Sinclair from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission coming to do a presentation about reconciliation and what it means to First Nations.”
Robbins described the project is a one-of-a-kind commemoration on reconciliation simply because it’s the only one across Canada that includes non-First Nations to be active participations.
It is hoped that a given day will be proclaimed Residential School Day for recognition, he said.
“There are individuals out there who cannot speak about their experiences. You may see them on a regular basis and you may even be working with them,” he told the chamber. “You may sell them a car or a loaf of bread, but at the end of the day you don’t know what this person has lived through.”
Robbins did credit his teacher at the residential school for giving him a good education.
“I sat up front because I didn’t know any other children and there was this beautiful lady with long flowing hair. She never beat me, she never hit me, she never assaulted me in any way,” he recalled.
When he first became chief the children in the community gave him a cup with the words “world’s greatest teacher.”
“I took that cup and I found that teacher. Her name was Miss Sale,” he said. “As soon as she stepped through the door, she said ‘Fred, Fred Lulua?’ this lady that I hadn’t seen for 40 years remembered my name. He gave her the cup, told her she deserved it more than he did and thanked her for everything she taught him.
It’s a positive story about the education, but the school where they housed him held so much pain and anguish, that it’s the place he wants to forget. Something he said he can’t do without the help of other residential school survivors. Robbins said.