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Rights + Justice

She Used to Gasp for Air Telling Her Residential School Story. Not Anymore

In Duncan, Elder Tseemkwaat shared her experience with hundreds, while thousands more marched for justice.

Francesca Fionda 5 Oct

Francesca Fionda is a freelance investigative and data journalist, and journalism instructor.

[Editor’s note: This article contains information and stories about residential schools. If you need support, call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support for people in so-called B.C. Dial 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.]

It took Elder Tseemkwaat (Lucy Thomas) years before she could talk about her experience at residential school. At first, she would gasp for air, hardly able to breathe. Now, on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Tseemkwaat stood before a crowd of hundreds to share her story.

“Now I can stand up here and talk; that tells me how strong I am,” the Quw’utsun Mustimuhw, or Cowichan Tribes, member told the sea of orange T-shirts in front of her.

Approximately 2,000 people dressed in orange shirts marched on Quw’utsun Mustimuhw land through the city of Duncan on Thursday to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The day started with drumming, singing and prayers outside Vancouver Island University’s Cowichan campus. From there, the crowd walked through downtown Duncan, passed city hall and finished at Quw’utsun Mustimuhw on Si’em Lelum soccer fields.

Quw’utsun Mustimuhw is the largest single First Nation band in B.C. with over 4,900 members. Generations of its children were sent to residential schools, including Kuper Island, where the Penelakut Tribe confirmed over 160 unmarked and undocumented graves in July.

These confirmations are likely just the beginning. Communities near Alberni, Williams Lake and Christie residential schools on Vancouver Island, where Cowichan Tribes children were also sent, are at different stages of searching those grounds for unmarked graves.

“We have been sharing the stories, and it’s fallen on deaf ears,” said event organizer and Quw’utsun Mustimuhw member Audrey George. But with the ongoing confirmations of unmarked children’s graves at former residential school sites across the country, George believes that society is starting to listen.

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Elder Tseemkwaat (Lucy Thomas) shares her truth and her father’s truth on the main stage. Photo by Francesca Fionda.

The new Sept. 30 federal statutory holiday is a time to recognize the children that didn’t make it home from residential schools, and to honour survivors that have overcome so much, said George. “Both of my parents went to residential school… if my parents didn’t survive, then I wouldn’t be here.”

The events in Duncan started out as a gathering for the Elders in the assisted living building where George works, but quickly grew citywide to include many partners.

Quw’utsun Mustimuhw have lived in the Cowichan Valley since time immemorial and trace their ancestry back to “winter villages on the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers and Cowichan Bay.”

About 30 kilometres from where the crowds marched is the site of Kuper Island residential school on Penelakut Island between Vancouver Island and mainland B.C. It was operated by the Catholic Church from 1889 to 1969, when the federal government took over.

The school stayed open until 1975, only 46 years ago. It’s just one of many residential institutions that generations of Quw’utsun Mustimuhw members were forced to attend.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation knows the names of 121 children who died at Kuper Island, but there are at least 160 undocumented and unmarked graves on the site.

Tseemkwaat’s late father was forced to dig those graves while a child at the school, she said.

He told her how a priest at the school woke him up at two in the morning. He was told to dig a hole five feet deep at the back of the school. He was handed bundles. He was told not to ask questions and not to tell anyone what he was forced to do.

This happened for years, she said. The priests threatened him and warned that if the truth got out, they would know it was him. It took him years before he could share this story with Tseemkwaat.

“Listening to other Elders’ stories — that made me stronger,” said Tseemkwaat. “A lot of my relations in the crowd are still feeling hurt. Still feeling a lot of pain. Talk. Talk. The more you talk the easier it gets, and it gets rid of that gasping for air when you’re talking.”

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Survivors found strength in storytelling on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Photo by Francesca Fionda.

Cowichan Tribes member Tim Joseph believes starting conversations is one way the community of Duncan can come together and address some of the racism that exists.

His home on Jubilee Street seemed like an unofficial stop on the march. The family handed out orange balloons to passersby. Kids Mary Ellen, Margaret and Eugene sat in the back of a pickup truck drumming and waving.

Their yard was filled with orange shirts, balloons, streamers and pumpkins, and a wooden train weaved through dozens of little statues and lawn ornaments. Joseph said he started decorating his front yard with mementos at the start of the pandemic and found it opened up communication with his elderly non-Indigenous neighbours.

“They tell me about the steam train; when you could take it and hear it coming in,” he said as he stood in his driveway to watch the march and livestream it from his phone for relatives in Tacoma, Washington.

There are many more stories that need to come out, said Joseph, whose father was a residential school survivor. He was moved by the stream of people dressed in orange who walked by his home.

He hopes the momentum continues and more support extends to survivors of intergenerational trauma who face the ongoing impacts of the schools. “My dad was a survivor. I’m a survivor from my dad,” he said.

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Jasmine Harms arranges the toys and mementos left in front of Duncan city hall. Photo by Francesca Fionda.

Outside Duncan’s city hall, marchers left flowers, shoes and toys in memory of the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 children who never made it home from residential schools across the country. The building once housed the federal government’s offices for Indian Affairs where children were medically examined before being sent to the schools.

“I experience this building as what it was before… it’s not a good feeling,” said Elder and residential school survivor Tousilum (Ron George) during a city council meeting in 2018.

“I remember that as a little child going up those stairs. I remember the skin being scrubbed. I remember... the powder being thrown on you, to clean you up. I remember that. I was a little child.” He was five years old when he was forced to go to residential school.

The residential school system was created to separate children from their families, weaken family ties and cultural linkages and indoctrinate children into a Euro-Christian society. “Generations of children from the same communities and families endured the experience of them,” details the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Children were taken from their families by the RCMP and forced to attend institutions run by the federal government and Christian churches. These so-called “schools” were part of an “education system in name only for much of its existence.”

The main goal was, “cultural genocide,” states a report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Survivors have since come forward with their experiences of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

Now an Elder, Tousilum watched his great-grandson dance and play on Si’em Lelum soccer fields as he addressed the crowds on Thursday. “How it gladdens the heart to see little Leo out there dancing with his whole heart and his soul,” he said after a group of Tzinquaw dancers performed.

The next generation is nurturing their spirits and minds, he said. “It’s breaking away that cycle,” he said.

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The youngest Tzinquaw dancer, Leo, raises his hands as he performs before the crowds. Photo by Francesca Fionda.

Tusqanum’s (Darrell Thorne) orange T-shirt design features a child reaching up towards an eagle feather, a representation of spirituality and strength. He and his mom set up a tent at the edge of the soccer field to sell shirts with some of the proceeds going to Orange Shirt Society.

His kid Elisa Thorne-Fisher helped him with the design of the child, adding the features and hair. My kid’s “a wicked artist too,” he said with a smile.

On the shirt, the child is being cradled by a hummingbird feather, a symbol of healing and guidance. Along the sides are two howling wolves symbolizing family unity and loyalty. The confirmation of the children’s graves at former school sites has woken people up, he said. And now is a time for unity.

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Tusqanum’s (Darrell Thorne) orange T-shirt design hangs from a tent set up for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Photo by Francesca Fionda.

Coming together one day a year to listen to painful stories is not enough, said Tseemkwaat. “I want an action plan. I want something to happen. I want reports next year: What’s changed?” she said.

“Do something,” she implored the crowd. “Don’t just say the words, ‘I want to help.’

“Read books, talk to people, ask questions,” she said. Others in the crowd shared similar thoughts, asking people to learn the history of residential schools, support Indigenous-designed orange shirts, donate to organizations that support survivors and demand action from elected officials.

Tseemkwaat said that not all Indigenous people and survivors want to talk about residential schools and their impacts.

“I want to talk,” she said. “I want to educate my friends out there. The more I talk, the better you understand us. The more clear our history becomes. So I want to encourage people; move out of this dark place. Let’s move on. Let’s hold hands and let’s start walking forward.”  [Tyee]

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