While some former residential school students may be “tattered” they have survived, said Grand Chief Ed John while in Williams Lake Friday.
John, a hereditary chief from Stuart Lake, participated in a three-member panel discussion on the residential school legacy during a Pro D event for School District #27. Teachers, administrators, local politicians and many residential school survivors were among those who attended to hear the panel members answer questions and share their stories.
The panel discussion was the first of a series of events that are taking place for what’s been called the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School Commemorative Project.
“Despite the odds out there, and despite the efforts of institutions in the country, we’re still standing up on our two legs as people and we will continue to build on whatever we have remaining to become strong again,” John said. “Not to be belligerent, not to be arrogant, but to be confident and to build on that basis.”
Around 150,000 First Nations attended residential school in Canada, he added.
Phyllis Webstad went to St. Joseph’s Mission School for one year when she was six years old.
She had been living with her grandmother on the Dog Creek Reserve. She recalled going shopping for a new outfit before going to the school.
When she arrived at the school, with a brand new shiny orange shirt, she was stripped, and never saw the shirt again.
As a child who had just turned six, she didn’t understand why the shirt was taken away.
“Nobody cared that I had feelings or that I was upset,” Webstad said, adding she purposely wore orange to a press conference earlier in the week. “It was like I didn’t matter and I think that’s what orange means to me. I just couldn’t wear orange today. You never know what’s going to trigger. I’m sure each residential school survivor has a trigger.”
Webstad’s understanding of what happened to her has been “backwards” she said.
“I was raised by my grandmother because my mother was told to leave by the Indian Agent because there was no work at Dog Creek and she went to work in canneries in the U.S.”
Being hugged, kissed and loved, stopped when Webstad went to residential school and nobody ever explained why.
“With my grandmother it was to protect herself because she had to let go. I always grew up not feeling worth, choosing spouses who abused me, and not thinking I was worth anything. I had to do a lot of work to know that wasn’t true,” Webstad said.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, never went to residential school, but was apprehended at the age of one, and taken into care. Originally from Penticton, Phillip lived in Hedley for the first five years and then moved to Quesnel.
“I had absolutely no idea who I was, other than the fact that I had moved from elementary through high school knowing I was definitely not on the top of the food chain,” Phillip said. “Being native, being an Indian, was not the flavour of the day. But I did not know I was an Okanagan of the Seal people.”
Quoting Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Phillip said the residential school didn’t just happen to First Nations, but it happened to all of Canada, resulting in an “abysmal relationship.”
“We’re all in this together and there are challenges this country faces. We need to set aside our petty differences,” Phillip said. “There was an incredibly inter-economic relationship that we relied on in the past. We need to establish that again.”
John called on the federal government to act on the formal apology Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave to residential school survivors in June 2008.
“We need support to ensure that we regain our families and our languages,” he said.
Joking he addressed the males in the crowd.
“This is the time of year we as boys would bring out our marbles. We need to keep playing marbles in a fair way and to keep all of our marbles with us to ensure what we did in the school yards, quietly away from the supervisors. We talked to each other in our language and there was a bit of defiance in each and every one of us because we knew if someone heard us that we would suffer the consequences,” John said.
Webstad encouraged teachers to invite survivors into the classroom to share stories and ask them and their students to listen without judgement.
As she hears the stories emerging from other survivors she said hurts are being awoken as if it was yesterday. One person told about being so hungry they ate cow pellets at the mission school. Another told of ending up with two boots for the same foot because that’s all that was left in the pile.
“We need to download. And I want my orange shirt back,” Webstad said.
Esk’etemc chief Fred Robbins has been one of the driving forces behind the project.
“First Nations people who attended the school, like myself, have worked hard since it closed in 1981 to seek justice for the wrongs we suffered and to create a new legacy for our children and grandchildren,” Robbins said.
District Supt. Mark Thiessen said often people are tempted to think the residential schools were “long ago” and faraway.
“It was neither of those and if you are 32 or older, it happened in your life time,” he said.
The important thing to remember is that education is so vital when humans do horrible things to each other.
“Chief Fred’s vision needs to be share with all of us that we are truly neighbours. Until we understand that and start living like that every single day, our region and our school district will not move forward.”