Carrying a pencil and notebook, Ladysmith Secondary School student Jennifer Elliott sits down to interview Stz’uminus elder Teresa Jack and describes her family lineage by way of an introduction.
“That’s our traditional way. We always acknowledge our families because we have connections within all of our communities. It’s a beautiful thing,” said LSS Hul’qumi’num coordinator Mandy Jones. “The elder will often say, ‘we’re related’ and start telling them their history.”
About a dozen elders from Stz’uminus, Snuneymuxw and Snaw-Naw-As First Nation, as well as those from Penelakut Tribe and Cowichan Tribes were at the high school earlier this month to participate in The Elder Project – a process that involves intimate conversations between elders and youth, who then create pieces of writing for a book of poetry.
The LSS gathering was the 19th Elder Project gathering put on by founder and award-winning Sooke poet Wendy Morton. The first was in Port Alberni in 2010 and others have been staged as far away as northern Labrador. This week’s was the second in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District.
The dialogue between the Grade 11 Elliott and the 80-year-old Jack is gentle and sincere, with the teen attentive as she goes through a list of prepared questions and jots down the responses in her notebook.
Jack speaks softly as she describes how her father died before she was born and that she was raised by her grandparents, living in a single-wall home with no insulation in area of Stz’uminus territory near Kulleet Bay known as The Point.
“We lived off the beach and the land. I didn’t know stores, they never went to stores every day, maybe once a month for supplies,” she said, describing how they ate clams and fish that were often prepared in their smoke house.
In the warmth of the summer, Jack would also pick berries that her grandmother would then can in a big tub outside over an open fire. There was no time for games in that time.
Often as the elder speaks she’ll pause for several seconds, as if caught deep in a memory, before continuing on with her life story – one like so many others that was shaped by the lasting impact of residential schools.
Jack was only five or six when she was snatched off the beach and taken to the Kuper Island residential school, located on present day Penelakut Island.
“One of my cousins and I were playing on the beach and the boat came in and just being nosy we went to go talk to that man, he was a priest, and he took us and my grandparents weren’t even home,” she said. “I heard after that they went over to try and get me out of there and they weren’t even allowed to see me.”
The experience traumatized Jack to the point that any sort of education didn’t interest her. She was even hesitant about participating in the Elder Project because without an education, Jack believed there wasn’t much she could offer.
“I was scared of school after being in Kuper. I thought all schools were the same so I never went to school again,” she said. “Once I got out of there I wouldn’t go back. When I seen someone coming towards The Point I’d run away and hide. I didn’t want to go back to residential.”
The conversation then turns to what Jack learned from the elders she grew up around.
“Right from when I was a little girl I was taught how to cook my own meals, and knit,” she said
“My grandma would wash wool and then we’d tease wool and card wool and knit. That was how she made a living; they’d go to sell sweater maybe once or month and buy what they needed so I knit all my life.”
Elliott also shares a story of her own grandmother teaching her how to knit.
“She thought I was too small but then I showed her I could do it so she taught me,” the teen explains.
Nearby, classmate and Grade 12 student Amos Harris is also deep into an interview with an elder.
“I’d like to learn how some of the elders lived and how their childhood was,” he told the Chronicle earlier in the day, also mentioning stories he’s heard about those who hid to avoid going to residential schools.
“It’s important because we need to know that Canada isn’t exactly perfect. It still has a past that people need to learn, they need to learn about residential schools and that we were here first and it’s good for me to know because it’s my culture.”
Students from Nanaimo District Secondary School (NDSS) also participated in the Elder Project last March, and now Ladysmith youth also had an opportunity through the Language and Land-based Learning class hatched last year at the high school.
The school district’s aboriginal education enhancement coordinator Michelle Sokoloski was on hand this week and described the experience as one of the most amazing projects she’s been apart of in recent years.
“For me, this is what learning should look like. The kids are learning the history of our elders at a different level and making connections they might not have otherwise made,” she said.
“The vice principal came in and she was talking about how some of these kids don’t make it to all their classes but they’re here, and they’re excited to learn and ready to participate.”
Back at the table with table with Jack and Elliott, it’s clear that those new connections now matter more than ever.
“People don’t help each other anymore, take care of each other, not like I remember,” Jack said. “When everybody used to be gone fishing or berry picking, my grandmother and grandfather used to ride on down to the reserve and check on the old people and bring them wood, or bring somebody to the store if they needed something – they don’t do that anymore. That’s what’s missing, is helping each other.”
The LSS students’ poetry will all be collected and presented in a formal book launch in April.
Jones said they enjoy having elders in the classroom, including one who comes from Penelakut to help with Hul’qumi’num, but this experience is special for the students.
“To have this many elders in one room is very rare especially within the school district,” she said.
“Our kids learning their history through elders is nothing that we can find in our textbooks. I always tell them that through their stories we learn our history, and our history is going to be important for them to know and remember for their land claims in the future.”