“We were called savages, heathens. That we wouldn’t amount to anything in our lives if we didn’t adapt by their system.”
Katzie First Nation elder Cyril Pierre recounted his nightmarish years at St. Mary’s Mission and Residential School to University of the Fraser Valley students on Wednesday.
UFV held a “day of learning” on Sept. 18 about Indian residential schools, such as St. Mary’s in Mission. This coincided with the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s national four-day event in Vancouver, during which residential school survivors have been sharing their experiences. The province has designated Sept. 16 to 22 as Reconciliation Week.
UFV, like other universities across B.C., suspended most classes on Wednesday, and offered opportunities to learn about residential schools.
Along the walls of UFV’s Abbotsford campus were black and white photographs of unsmiling Indian students in Catholic school uniforms, as speakers shared their stories in lecture halls and academics provided contextual clarity on what the schools were trying to achieve.
“It is hoped that this will lead us on the path to healing and reconciliation,” said UFV’s Dean of Professional Studies Rosetta Khalideen.
The Mission residential school kept its doors open the longest in B.C., closing only in 1985 after 122 years in operation.
British Columbia is home to some of the most diverse and sophisticated aboriginal cultures in North America, UBC professor Jean Barman told UFV students. Residential schools initially opened with the goal of converting this diverse population to Christianity and adapting them to white culture.
What the schools had in common, Barman said, was their isolated location, woeful underfunding, and the separation of students from families. During the darkest decades, admission to a school was mandatory and forced, with countless survivors telling of how they were stolen in daylight from their parents by a government agent.
Both Pierre and Joe Ginger, another aboriginal speaker at UFV, told of rampant physical, emotional and sexual abuse at West Coast residential schools. Pierre and Ginger suffered it all during their attendance at St. Mary’s in the 1950s and 1960s – experiences that have irrevocably changed the course of their lives. Both became alcoholics, and lost trust in the government.
“Our story is one of many, one of thousands,” said Ginger. “I really didn’t have a lot of faith in Canada after what I’d been through.”
Pierre’s story has become a documentary by UFV alumnus filmmaker Dallas Yellowfly, of 3 Crow Productions.
Yellowfly’s own father was taken by a government agent at age six and forced into a residential school. He returned broken.
“When he came back to his home, he was a different person,” said Yellowfly. “This stuff is still affecting us today. It’s affecting our nations. It’s affecting our families.”
The B.C. public school curriculum, not unique in Canada, does not address in depth this dark period in the nation’s history. UFV’s “day of learning” was one step toward better knowledge.
The former grounds of St. Mary’s in Mission now host Fraser River Heritage Park, where a monument stands to commemorate the students of the firstname.lastname@example.org twitter.com/alinakonevski