This story contains details of residential “schools'”that may be upsetting. Survivors and their families can reach the IRSSS crisis line any time at 1-866-925-4419.
The streets of Cowichan filled with a sea of orange on Sept. 30 for the Every Child Matters March, hosted by Cowichan Tribes and organized by Audrey George to honour the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Thousands of people gathered and walked from Vancouver Island University’s Cowichan campus to the downtown core. The air filled with the sound of drumming and singing. The emotion and significance of the day enveloped the crowd.
The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is a day to remember the genocidal history of Canada’s residential “school” system and work towards a better future. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the federal government to establish the holiday as one of its 94 calls to action, published in 2015.
The legacy of the residential “school” system came to the fore of public attention in May, 2021 when Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced it had located the remains of 215 children on a former residential school site. Since then, more unmarked graves have been located at other “schools.”
Penelakut Tribe says it has confirmed more than 160 unmarked graves in the vicinity of the former Kuper Island “school,” in a search that began years ago and is ongoing. Many children of Cowichan Tribes and other Coast Salish nations were forced to attend the Kuper Island “school.” It’s brutal history is documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports. Those documents detail starvation, disease and other absuses, including widespread sexual abuse of children at that school, and efforts by the federal government and the Catholic church to avoid accountability.
As the Every Child Matters March processed by the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church on James St., a man wearing an orange jacket stood on the side of the road with tears in his eyes and held two signs. They read, “Every Child Matters” and “I’m Sorry.”
As the march moved along, some marched in silence and others joined in traditional songs. Some held signs showing pictures of residential “school” survivors, and others held the hands of their loved ones.
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People came out of their homes and businesses and stood, leaned up against their doorways, watching the crowd pass by.
Relearning what ‘love’ means
The march ended at the Si’em Lelum soccer fields, near the Cowichan River. There, Elders sat on benches while others stood, sat or kneeled on the ground. The Cowichan Tzinquaw Dancers performed, followed with words by Cowichan Elder Tousilum (Ron George), a residential “school” survivor, who opened up about his traumatic past and shared his hopes for future generations.
Education, Tousilum explained, was the greatest gift his parents wanted for him. Instead, he received a childhood of abuse, both emotional, and physical. When he arrived at the big, red, brick building of Kuper Island “school,” far away from family, the building felt cold, and all he felt was fear.
At five years old, he looked out the window and cried, which got him in trouble.
“They used to grab me by my neck here, and drag me down into a room, a dark room. But in dragging me, they were slapping me in the back of my head. They slapped me so much in my ear that both of my ears, the drums, they broke. Both my ears, puss came out all the time.
“In all of the anger, being slapped, these words stuck with me for a long, long, long time. They were slapping me (and) they were saying, ‘Why don’t you shut up? You stupid little Indian.’ I was ‘stupid’ for a long time.”
This word, he explained, was branded into his brain, and it haunted him for years. From the age of 13, he used alcohol numbed the pain of his past. It took many years for him to understand once again what the word “love” meant. Light at the end of the tunnel came when Tousilum’s community of family and friends picked him up, and told him that he was needed.
“They took me, they embraced me, they nurtured me, they looked after me, so I was able to get out there and dance like all these young ones can. That dance, that feeling of being out there, put my one foot in the community. And that kept me going.”
Hope for the next generation
Tousilum looked toward all the young Tzinquaw dancers, gathered beside him at the foot of the stage. Leo, the youngest of the group at four years old, stood quietly by his father, also a dancer.
“How it gladdens the heart to see little Leo out there dancing with his whole heart and his soul. It’s breaking away (from) that cycle. They come truly to who they are.”
Tousilum was joined by dozens of young students from Mill Bay Nature School. Together they sang a song, “Huy ch q’u Siem” — thank you, respected one.
Those children are demonstrating q’ushin’tul’, the act of walking together as one, Tousilum said. “They’re walking together. And q’ushin’tul’ means that we’re walking together. Not only within the school system, but with each other as families.
“What happened [at residential ‘school’] wasn’t very good for me. We get tired of being in the negative. I want things to be in the positive way now. And so for each one of us to look at that. Let’s give all of that strength that we can for these young ones, because every one of them deserves every moment of that,” said Tousilum.