Through an emotionally stirring return to the site of Alberni Residential School, a group of former Gitxsan students hoped to “call back their spirits” more than half a century later.
Arriving at a ceremony on Friday, Sept. 29 attended by about 200 people, the group made a symbolic walk to the site, now marked by a monument next to the Tseshaht Longhouse.
The group of 20 Western Gitxsan residential school survivors travelled from the northwestern B.C. villages of Gitwangak, Gitanyow and Gitsegukla near Kitimat. They were hosted by the Tseshaht on the occasion of Orange Shirt Day, intended to foster greater awareness of residential school impacts and hope in the spirit of reconciliation.
Lisa Watts, a counsellor with the residential school healing program Quu’asa, said the walk symbolized a desire to reclaim that part of their childhood that was forecefully and traumatically taken away.
“It takes so much courage for people to come forward and say a little bit of something about where you come from,” Watts said.
While the occasion was somber, the predominant mood was one of resilience and triumph over adversity: “It’s an amazing day to be Indigenous,” Watts told the assembled crowd.
“We know nothing of what you endured, but we are thankful you held on,” George Watts told the visitors.
While the school is but a memory now, its impact is still profoundly felt, an indelible mark on the countless families separated by the residential experience. Stories abound.
“My late dad was taken by gunboat from Friendly Cove in the early ’40s,” recalled Andy Callicum, vice-president of Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council, while welcoming the group.
“To me today, it’s all about sending a message,” Callicum added. “To the federal government, you failed. You tried to destroy us and you failed.”
Mayor Mike Ruttan agreed that the federal government has failed but held up local government’s commitment to the spirit of reconciliation.
“I’m honoured by the invitation to address you because it’s going to be walking together that makes us stronger,” Ruttan said.
Trevor Little directed children from Haahuupayak school in Tseshaht song and dance before they led another walk, this one in support of residential school survivors on Orange Shirt Day.
Chief Guxsen, Larry Marsden, said their journey was similar to one made last year to Edmonton by another Gitxsan survivors’ group.
“A lot of survivors who came to school here did lose their spirits,” Marsden explained. “And we get to live longer lives by calling them back. That’s part of our culture.”
The visit was also a reunion for several participants since some of the Gitxsan students who attended residential school here remained and settled into the community.