On Friday, the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation hosted a healing journey for members of the First Nation in which residential school survivors, as well as those who did not survive their time at the residential schools were honoured.
The healing journey began with an 18 kilometer run from the site of the (now demolished) Lejac Residential School to the Nadleh Whut’en Nation.
The 30 or so runners represented the young Nadleh children who went to school in Lejac and their run symbolically represented those children leaving that school and finally coming home.
One of the event’s organizers, Eleanor Nooski stood at the rear of the hall, carefully attaching a photos to each of 76 candles, each representing a band member who had attended the Lejac school, and had since passed on. Beneath each photo was a brief story regarding that person.
More than 115 children were taken from the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation and sent to Lejac. Of those, 40 are still with us, and it’s those people who we are honouring today,” said Nooski.
“Our people feel a responsibility (about the residential school) because the school was on our land. We let it happen, not knowing the abuses that would take place.”
Nooski explained that, when the school was established, some people in the band had the best intentions. They were told the school would give their children an education and they felt education was a priority. Nooski’s own mother was sent to Lejac, and although she is now 87 years of age, her memories of the abuse she suffered are still raw in her mind.
“They never thought that the children would be abused and that they were going to be used as slave labour. They had no idea of the cultural genocide that would take place,” said Nooski.
Chief of the Nadleh Whut’en, Larry Nooski, has his own memories of residential school. He attended not Lejac, but St. Joseph school.
“The schools were intended to kill the Indian…eradicate the Indian inside our children. I remember that there was this dark hole in the furnace room. I remember being put in that hole as punishment and kept there for a long time,” he said.
“Think about that. You don’t treat people like that…children like that. Nobody should ever have treated a child like that.”
The Bishop of the Prince George diocese, Stephen Jensen was on hand at Friday’s ceremonies and said that he felt that events like the Welcome Home Ceremony are an important part of the healing process.
He acknowledged the Catholic Church’s role in the Lejac experience as the Roman Catholic Church was contracted by the Federal Government to operate the facility.
“We can’t forget and we (need to) honour those who suffered,” said Jensen.
But when asked about the Church’s direct responsibility for the abuses that took place at Lejac, Jensen responded by saying that some of the policies at the school, particularly those revolving around not allowing the children to speak their own language, were the fault of “bureaucrats in Ottawa” who set out those policies.
“The Church has, and will continue to be involved in reconciliation,” he added.
Father Vince James, the parish priest on the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation and a 25 year resident on the reserve, said that he hoped that the event would help provide some closure for Lejac survivors.
He expressed disappointment that the Pope had recently refused to issue an apology to residential school survivors, but expressed confidence that the apology would come in time.
Chief Archie Patrick of the Stellat’en First Nation, himself a Catholic, had weeks ago expressed his own frustration with the Church’s position. At the event on Friday Patrick characterized what had been done at Lejac as cultural genocide.
“We forgot our language, and traditions. But more importantly we lost our spirituality…our soul,” said Patrick.
Eleanor Nooski, however, said that forgiveness is part of what is required for healing to occur.
“We need to move forward now and here (at Nedleh) we are doing everything possible to revitalize our culture,” she said.
As part of the ceremonies, the band announced several initiatives designed to aid in that revitalization, including teaching the young people the native language, and teaching them skills like trapping and salmon fishing.
The event also included a moving ceremony in which each residential school survivor was brought forward and draped in a blanket by the youth of the Nadleh, an act that was representative of the “welcome home” by the First Nation; a welcome and recognition long overdue.