This story shares information about residential “schools.”The Indian Residential School Survivor Society’s Crisis Line can be reached any time at 1-866-925-4419.
Nanaimo’s waterfront was a sea of orange shirts on Sept. 30 as hundreds of area residents came out to honour the children and survivors of residential “schools” on what was Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Hosted by Snuneymuxw First Nation, the City of Nanaimo, and Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools, the public event at Maffeo-Sutton/Swy-a-Lana Park featured testimony, introspection, music, dance, prayer and storytelling.
The painful legacy of residential schools was very much in evidence as Snuneymuxw community members shared their truths about its multi-generational impact. But so too was pride in their people’s incredible resilience.
And the bright orange shirts worn by so many in the crowd, in recognition of Orange Shirt Day, was an apt representation of the spark of hope everyone present seemed to have for the future.
The need to honestly acknowledge this past and walk together towards a better future was made all the more stark with Snuneymuxw First Nation recently receiving grassroots support to search for unmarked graves on their territory at the site of the former federally-run Nanaimo “Indian Hospital.”
Given the extremely sombre nature of the occasion, it was fitting that the day’s events were overseen by the beneficent spirits of the eagle, killer whale, bear and ancestor of the park’s sensational, newly-erected welcoming pole carved by Noel Brown of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. The pole stands at the site of what was once a vibrant village, xwsa’luxw’ul, populated by his ancestors.
Elder Jerry Brown, Noel’s father, is proud of his son’s accomplishment.
“The pole helps tell our history, and telling our history lessens the pain that’s inside us so it’s bearable,” he says. “I thank the city, the school district, and everyone who is here today. I ask everyone to open their ears, their eyes, their heart. This is our town. Love! Kindness! Forgiveness! We can all get along”.
Elder Brown wrapped up his talk with a challenge to the crowd that brought cheers and laughter. “Learn Hul’q’umi’num!”
Earlier, master of ceremonies Bill Yoachim had introduced the many guest speakers of the day, which included Snuneymuxw Chief Mike Wyse, Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog, Nanaimo Ladysmith School District Chair Charlene McKay, MLA Sheila Malcolmson, Elder Gary Manson, carver Noel Brown, Elder Jerry Brown, Elder Lolly Good and a drum group headed by Paul Wyse-Seward.
Chief Wyse had powerful words for the audience.
“This is a day for meaningful reflection, but also to think about how we can move forward together,” he said.
“Children were torn away from their families, subjected to mental, physical and spiritual abuses, and too often left in unmarked graves. We carry this burden to this day with intergenerational trauma. But today is a day filled with encouragement. Everyone present is saying, ‘We see you. We acknowledge you, now and forever, and we support a path to healing and peace’. The work ahead will be challenging, but it is overdue, and necessary. Let’s heal together. Stand tall together. And make things right for future generations”.
Mayor Krog elicited self-reflective laughter when he took the microphone and acknowledged what many in the crowd were perhaps feeling: “What does an old white guy say on orange shirt day?” He acknowledged that when he went to school he was not taught the “full, real history of this country”, but that things are changing. “Much has been said, but much remains to be done.”
Mayor Krog acknowledged in a follow-up interview his desire to see real change for the First Nations people of Canada. “First Nations kids need clean water to drink. Until that happens, and until the unemployment rate among First Nations people drops and the graduation rate goes up, the Canadian government is clearly failing in its promise to provide more equal opportunities for personal and community advancement”.
He said that for his part, he meets with local Snuneymuxw First Nation leaders regularly. The city has a protocol agreement with the SFN and that of the two, the city is the less important group at the table.
When Elder Good, whose Hul’q’umi’num name is Shxuysulwut, took the microphone, everyone on stage remained standing for her words.
Elder Good is a fourth-generation residential “school” survivor. She describes her children as the fifth generation “because I have passed all my suffering on to them.”
Elder Good acknowledged that it took her 70 years to be able to talk about residential “school” because of the shame she felt.
She went on to describe her personal journey from a lonely youngster to an adult who dulled her shame, anger and sense of hopelessness with alcohol, only finding the will to live later in life when she realized she was not alone on her journey. She feels now she can be “the girl I was meant to be.”
Elder Good finished by insisting that the day was a positive one. She encouraged the crowd to “give the pole happiness so it has the strength to stay there for many years to come”.
Chief Wyse wrapped up the ceremony by asking the crowd to stand, face the sunrise and honour the ancestors, and take the time to show solidarity.
Nanaimo’s waterfront shone as hundreds of bodies clad in bright orange turned as one.