I’tustolagalis – Rising Up, Together: St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C. — one of five remaining residential schools in the province — is slated for demolition later this year. This is the third part of a three-part February series looking further into the stories of the students, challenges faced by local First Nations in the Comox Valley today, and a special mid-month ceremony at the school to acknowledge the past and ignite hope for the future. For this final instalment, Record reporter Erin Haluschak attended the reconciliation ceremony Feb. 18 at St. Michael’s Residential School.
“I have seen my fair share of abuse. I have seen my fair share of addiction. And it is a direct effect of all of this.”
With a small white piece of paper in her hand for reference, Carla Voyageur gestures towards St. Michael’s Residential School, while her voice confidently addresses the hundreds of people in front of her, only wavering slightly to fight a handful of tears.
“The time is now to reclaim our children, to reclaim ourselves,” she says. “As a mother, but also as a child, a by-product of this residential school, I plead to you we uphold our children and return to a child-centred way of raising our children.”
Voyageur is the daughter of Comox Valley elder Evelyn Voyageur, one of many students from the area who attended the residential school and returned to the small community of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island Wednesday one final time to see the ominous schoolhouse prior to its destruction.
The large crowd stood in the shadow of the imposing red brick building as part of a healing ceremony — I’tustolagalis: “Rising Up, Together” — for students, family members and the community to help let go of some of the sexual, physical and emotional abuse and create means of hope through continued healing and potential reconciliation.
Using the day as a chance to come to terms with his younger self, former student Jimmy Quatell describes his four years spent at the school as nothing but hell, recalling his only goal was to survive.
“One of the biggest things I ever carried from here was that I would never amount to anything. I’m just a stupid little Indian,” he notes. “And I left here with that mentality … it was really hard because that stuck in my brain. Everything I was supposed to learn, they kept saying ‘are you stupid?’ I might as well be, you know.”
He looks over his shoulder at the school, noting he’s not going to let the school take any more away from him — he’s here to take back his childhood.
“Today I’m going to take my name Jimmy, and I’m going to grab that little boy and I’m going to take him away. He doesn’t belong here now. (We) come from more than this. This place is a black cloud; today, the sun is going to shine.”
• • •
“Close that door. Close that door. Close that door.”
The chant begins with a small group of people and quickly grows, spreading throughout the crowd as the engine of an excavator grumbles to a start in front of the school.
Less than a minute later, opening its bucket like a pair of jaws, the excavator rips into the front entrance of the 86-year-old building, with an equal mix of cheers and sobbing drowning out the sound of falling bricks and wood beams.
“This is a stepping stone for better things. This is our moment,” explains Chief Robert Joseph, who attended St. Michael’s. “This is a historic moment. The building is a blight against this land — a blight against our consciousness.”
He recalls standing on the very steps that now rest at the foot of the building in a pile of rubble, remembering children’s hands being taken away from families.
More than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their homes and communities and forced to attend schools like St. Michael’s across Canada. The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement identified 139 residential schools across the country, with the last school closing in 1996 — Gordon’s School in Punnichy, Sask.
St. Michael’s Residential School was operated by the Anglican Church, from 1929 to 1975. It was the largest school under Anglican administration.
Joseph says it’s hard for people to comprehend that individuals could treat other people the way they treated children at the school.
“On my last day at the school, I packed my meagre belongings and it hit me — I had no sense of value or no sense of purpose; I had nowhere to go.”
He notes with the symbolic gesture of survivors tossing stones at the school, it’s time to move forward and time to heal.
“We ought to learn from this experience; all Canadians have to learn to love each other, hold each other and care for each other. I know we can do it.”
• • •
Standing off to the side at the front of the healing ceremony, Bishop Logan McMenamie, representing the Anglican Diocese of B.C., is flanked by two of his peers. He listens as Pauline Alfred, a former residential school student, recites the Lord’s Prayer in her native tongue, and again in English.
“Eight times we prayed in the school. And nothing good ever came out of it for us. We could pray all we want, but we still starved, we still died of loneliness,” she explains.
McMenamie says he sees the courage and fortitude of those around him, adding he presents his heart to the survivors, which is heavy and dark.
“I am so sorry we were part of that system. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed the Creator.”
Inside the adjacent U’Mista Cultural Centre, former student Betty Baker examines a display of photographs her friend took from a camera her father gave to her. She points to an image of her teenage self surrounded by friends and smiles.
She suffered from tuberculosis for three-and-a-half years while at St.Michael’s, and recalls the principal was “a very harsh man who wanted to abuse me to get me out of there.”
Her siblings attended the school too, but she says she doesn’t blame the church for its role in the residential school system.
“I blame the government. The government wanted to integrate us so they segregated us, they segregated us from our family. They segregated us from our community and our extended families.”
Baker’s brother Bob adds it was difficult for him to look at McMenamie while he addressed the crowd.
“(The apology) never will be enough. It never will be.”