Residential school survivors and Anglican church leaders will soon gather in Alert Bay, a remote village on an island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, to watch the demolition of a residential school.

St. Michael's Indian Residential School closed in 1974, but 40 years later the building still exists. For many, it's a reminder of a painful past that will finally be gone.

"It was a foreboding presence," said Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and a founder of Reconciliation Canada.

"It represented all that was wrong with Canada during that time and all that was terrible between First Nations people and other Canadians." 

Joseph attended St. Michael's as a child and will be there to see it demolished on Feb. 18.

Inter-generational harm and trauma

Canada's residential school system took aboriginal children away from their families and their communities and forbade them from speaking their languages and practising their culture.

"They were intended to totally assimilate aboriginal children because we were less than human," said Joseph.

"At the end of it all, most aboriginal children suffered deep harm and trauma, generation after generation."

As the main organizer of the event, Joseph has been busy phoning coastal tribal groups from all along the West Coast. He expects there will be hundreds going to the small island to take part in the ceremony.

The celebrations will begin at the local big house (sometimes known in other parts of B.C. as a long house) the night before, where tribal groups will share each other's cultures.

Apologies and reconciliation

Prior to the demolition the next day, participants will hear speakers, including government and church officials.

"We're going to have huge banners of those apologies reminding the survivors and others that the church and the state have acknowledged that they did wrong," said Joseph.

He said there are some in the community who are still very angry and won't be pleased to see church and government leaders at the event.

"Reconciliation begins there, with our differences," said Joseph. "Together they have to walk with us in a new way forward that brings about healing and of course the potential for reconciliation."

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Chief Robert Joseph welcomes demolition of former Alert Bay residential school