Both my parents and many of my family members attended a residential school near Williams Lake B.C. Growing up, I heard their stories and saw first hand the lasting impact experiences like these had on my community.
The memories of these stories include going into reserves and taking kids away from their parents before separating the girls from the boys and forcing them to live in separate schools far away from home. It was hard for me to hear these stories. I love my brothers and sisters and can’t imagine not being able to see them. It would be heartbreaking.
A cultural genocide
It is very sad to know Canada’s First Nations people almost lost their language and culture because they were outlawed at these residential schools. My grandmother helped preserve our language by recording it and now we can download it on iTunes! (which I am very proud of), but many Indigenous kids don’t know their native tongue and weren’t taught. Much of my family has been sober for over 25 years. This helped us pass down family traditions and show younger generations how to live off the land. But I also witnessed alcoholism in my community and saw the negative impact it has on families. This all stems from unresolved pain.
The shame I felt over the colour of my skin
My reserve is called Canim Lake, B.C. It’s the kind of place you grow up in with everyone knowing you. When I left the reserve for public school it was a terrible experience. Kids made racist jokes that I couldn’t handle, so I went back to school on the reserve where I could be myself. As I got older and had no choice but to attend a public school I found skateboarding as a passion and that helped me make friends. Even though I felt accepted by people at school, I would still encounter racism and coped by ignoring it.
But the truth is I felt ashamed to be native.
Honouring my ancestors
I carried this feeling around with me until four years ago when I attended the first Walk for Reconciliation. It was a powerful experience that drew together thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to walk together. This walk recognized the lives taken, honoured survivors, and those impacted by the Indian residential school system. The next walk is later this month (September 24th), and I hope you will walk with me after reading what I felt that day four years ago.
I felt like a new person that day, so the walk will forever be a day to remember. I could finally talk with complete strangers about how we learned to keep our language and culture alive. While on this walk I got to speak to elders from different reserves in B.C., and that was an emotional experience. When Dr. Bernice King appeared onstage her speech was especially powerful and inspiring. She told us to stay strong and to take steps towards making history for our people. Hearing this and looking around, I saw people hugging, shaking hands and sharing laughs with each other. And at one point when I looked around I saw tears coming down the faces of individuals as they listened to her. Different communities had made sure their elders and survivors of residential schools could attend and it was beautiful to look arund and see the traditional clothes different communities were wearing. You could tell what part of the country they were from (West Coast or East). It was amazing to see people had come from such far away places to be a art of this healing.
At the end of Dr. King’s speech I realized that I was no longer ashamed of the colour of my skin, for the first time, at the age of 30.
Why we need to walk (together)
The Walk for Reconciliation is important to me for many reasons, including knowing we are moving in the right direction as a community of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to improving the lives of many. I learned a lot listening to people tell their stories of what their communities are going through and really encourage people to come out to the next walk to support and celebrate history with us. Building healthy communities starts with helping those affected by the residential school system and giving them the support they need.
The silence of what happened in Canada with residential schools and the effects it still has in First Nations communities is finally getting the attention it deserves. If you cant attend the Walk for Reconciliation, you can consider a donation to help fund this healing and coming together. I was happy to hear that my employer (Vancity) got involved with a $500,000 contribution to become a Founding Partner of Reconciliation Canada.
If we want future generations of First Nations people to be proud of this walk is a good start.