Ceremony, support and some form of justice is the way forward following the news of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the former Kamloops residential school last week, said Tslihqot’in tribal chair and chief, Chief Joe Alphonse.
“It’s devastating,” Alphonse said Monday (May 31) of the findings by the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc. “What happened in Kamloops is affecting First Nations across the country. This was not an isolated incident, this happened at every location. And we’re not talking 150 years ago. The last residential school was shut down in 1996.”
This week, Alphonse said Secwépemc leaders met Monday (May 24), Tsilhqot’in leaders are meeting Tuesday and leaders from all 15 Indigenous communities within the Cariboo Chilcotin, including Carrier, Secwépemc, Tsilhqot’in and Nuxalk First Nations are expected to meet Thursday to discuss next steps, including plans to hold a ceremony at St. Joseph’s Mission sometime in the near future in support of Tk’emlups te Secwépemc but also to acknowledge what happened at the Mission.
“For a lot of our people, even those that are in leadership, they have had a very bad experience, horrific experience at the institution so it’s hard for them to navigate through this, but us First Nations people we always start with ceremony. So we have to go to that location … we have to face our fears. It was so horrifying a lot of our people can’t even talk about what happened.”
Alphonse said the Williams Lake First Nation are the caretakers of the lands where the Mission is located just south of Williams Lake, and they will honour and await their decisions and invitation regarding a ceremony at the site.
Alphonse believes the findings in Kamloops is ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ in terms of tragedies suffered at every residential school across Canada. He also thinks it will spark a movement.
“This is what we have been saying for years but nobody want to talk about it, nobody wants to believe it,” he said.
“I think of the stories my grandmother told me, how friends and people in the community went (to residential school) and never came home. These are the reasons we fight for aboriginal rights and recognition. Parents didn’t want the kids to go but they had no choice. If they kept their kids they would’ve been thrown in jail themselves. It’s Canada’s dark history. I think people have to start calling it for what it is, the Canadian holocaust.”
Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities throughout the Cariboo Chilcotin have found ways to acknowledge the deaths in Kamloops, from wearing orange as part of the Every Child Matters campaign, to putting teddy bears or children’s shoes on their doorsteps. Many Indigenous communities have also lit sacred fires for the lost children and have taken part of drumming and singing. Friday evening (May 28) members of the Williams Lake First Nations held an emotional ceremony at Lake City Secondary School Williams Lake campus to honour the victims and support the survivors of residential schools.
Alphonse is encouraging his members to take care of themselves and each other, and seek support if needed.
“This has triggered a lot of feelings and isn’t just by First Nations people its the general population as a whole,” he said. “I tell my members, my message to them is that this is a very tough time for a lot of people, even those who haven’t gone to residential school. Every First Nations person in Canada has been affected by residential schools but to continue to be silent is allowing them to get away with what they did.”
Alphonse said he will press for an apology and accountability from the Roman Catholic Church. He said he will also continue to be aggressive in dealing with politicians who suggest anything positive has come out of residential schools, and who point to Indigenous populations as a problem regarding crime.
“Our people have suffered a lot and they’ve been through a lot and there has to be a better way of dealing with things than just .. always ‘throw the keys away,’ toughen up on sentencing, you know that doesn’t work.”