This story contains details of abuse in Canada’s residential “school” system. Survivors and their families can reach support any time by calling the Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s crisis line at 1-800-721-0066.
Hundreds of people gathered on Monday, Aug. 1 at the village of Sunuwnets (currently known as Chemainus) to walk and listen in remembrance of the children who attended Kuper Island Residential School.
This marked the second time the community of Spune’luxutth (Penelakut) has hosted the March For The Children on its territory. (The Stz’uminus First Nation, formerly the Chemainus First Nation, is a separate nation. Chemainus is within both nations’ traditional territory.)
The first march occurred one year ago, in the wake of the announcement that at least 160 unmarked graves had been recovered in the vicinity of the former residential “school” on Penelakut Island. The work of locating graves, uncovering stories and moving towards healing is ongoing.
On Monday, clouds offered respite from the recent days of intense heat as community members gathered near the Chemainus Ferry Terminal. Drummers and singers shared songs. When one young boy took a solo, the crowd stilled and his voice rang out clear through the streets.
Most people wore orange shirts, a symbol proclaiming that “every child matters” and that no one should ever be subjected to the dehumanizing treatment inflicted on Indigenous children by Canada’s institutions of colonization. Volunteers passed out orange flowers, ribbons and pins.
“I thank each and every one of you,” one of the organizers said to the crowd, for taking the time to show support and “to help the ones that didn’t come home.”
When the march began, the smun’eem (children) led the way. The group walked through the streets as others gathered to watch and support. Another group of onlookers gathered in front of the Chemainus United Church, and they too were offered flowers.
The walk ended at the Waterwheel Park bandshell, where young dancers from Spune’luxutth and Quw’utsun lifted the crowd’s spirits. Language, dance and music were among the practices stolen through the residential system, speakers at the event would later remark. But the people are still here and the children are still dancing.
“We’re still here; our songs and our dances are still here,” said Jacob Joe, who led the Quw’utsun Tzinquaw Dancers. After introducing the Victory Song, he added, “It’s a victory that we are still here.”
Many survivors of Kuper Island and other residential “schools” attended the gathering, and many spoke.
Kuper Island School was infamously brutal. It was a place where sexual predators were harboured, and abuse, neglect, starvation and death were common. A 1895 survey found that 107 out of 264 former students had died. The “school” stayed open until 1975.
The school’s horrors are documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports, in CBC’s Kuper Island podcast, in documentaries and elsewhere. It took many survivors decades to start telling their stories.
“We will tell our stories over and over,” said Spune’luxutth S’ulxwe’en (Penelakut Elder) Ray Tony Charlie when he got up to speak. Ray Tony has recently published a book, In the Shadow of the Red Brick Building, about his experiences at residential “schools.”
At the bandshell, survivors stepped forward to share hard truths about the reality of the abuse and told stories of hope for healing. The crowd rose to its feet to clap and honour each of the speakers.
One theme was shared by nearly every person who approached the microphone: gratitude for each and every person who came to the march, who took the time to show support and to listen. [end]
Editor’s note, Aug. 4 2022: A previous version of this article misidentified an organizer of the march. We have corrected the article and regret the error.