Symbolic rays of light shone over the crowd of about 500 people at the beginning of the third annual Penelakut Tribe March For The Children in Chemainus Monday morning.
The sun broke through the clouds just as the assembled group started its trek from the Salish Sea Market by the Penelakut/Thetis Island ferry terminal for the route through downtown Chemainus and finishing at Waterwheel Park for a program of song, dance, speeches and camaraderie.
The first march in 2021 followed the Penelakut Tribe’s revelation the previous month that 167 unmarked graves had been found on the site of the former Kuper Island Residential School that operated on the island from 1889 until 1975.
The Catholic Church ran the school until 1969 when it was taken over by the federal government and then eventually shut down about six years later.
Among those participating in the march were the current oldest and youngest Penelakut residents – Myrus James, who will be 87 on Sept. 1, and 16-day-old Kylen James, pushed in a stroller, obviously, by mother Ida James.
Myrus James, who will also be marking his 60th wedding anniversary with wife Lavinia on Aug. 31 the day before his birthday, said he was “tired” at the end of the walk. But he made it around the route with cane in hand for the important cause not only for First Nations, but other community supporters.
“I think it’s something we have to carry on a little bit longer,” said James. “It’s taken a while for some of the survivors to get over the things that happened. Maybe in five or six years, it’ll be erased, but we’re not too sure.”
James also thanked the Chemainus community for being so understanding.
“It’s a necessary thing for us to heal ourselves,” he emphasized.
The ceremony at the Waterwheel Park bandshell featured a special presentation.
Ted Beaubier, who grew up in Chemainus, bought a painting from artist Dan Elliott called Smoke Of Torment that depicts the demolition of the Kuper Island Residential School.
“I was honoured that Ted Beaubier bought this painting,” said Elliott. “He said it’s too powerful for me to have in my home. We both agreed it should come back to Penelakut.”
“Daniel is taking major steps to reconcile,” said Beaubier. “How do we integrate the clash of cultures? It’s not an easy thing to do.
“The scene was dynamic. I think there’s a lot of themes that run through that painting. The major part was to speak to the damage that was done and the retribution.”
Beaubier was happy to donate the painting back for whatever purpose the Penelakut desired.
“It’s a painting for the people, it’s a painting for the public,” he said.
Khowutzun’s Tzinqwa Singers and Dancers performed songs of peace and victory.
Charlene Belleau of Alkali Lake, who has been a prominent Indigenous liaison in providing advice and expertise to First Nations and the provincial government, attended to speak to the gathering.
Her own grandfather attended the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School and did not survive.
Belleau has learned a great deal about the process and the ensuing alcohol and substance abuses that resulted for so many.
“Today, I enjoy 44 years of sobriety,” she said. “I need to make sure I understand what that history is so I can continue to move forward. I’ve been able to come full circle in my own healing journey.”
Based on her grandfather’s experience, Belleau urged Kuper Island survivors to offer their insights.
“The ones that are out here that went to the school, know that each of you have a story, each one of you need to tell your story. You’re stronger because of what you went through.”
Ray Charlie, whose experiences have been well-documented in the book In The Shadow of the Red Brick Building, was one of the MCs for the ceremonies.
“A lot of us have a lot of difficulties we carry every day,” he indicated.
“It’s very important we remember those children who did not make it home.”
Nadine Thomas was credited for doing a great deal of the legwork for the day’s festivities, with merchandise and food available free to the public as well as arranging the logistics for the march route.