British Columbia

First Nations in B.C. call on Ottawa to remove former residential, day school buildings

Chiefs and councils of First Nations in British Columbia are calling on the federal government to remove buildings that were once designed to assimilate their people, because they are symbols of trauma and pain.

Okanagan Indian Band and Tseshaht First Nation say old buildings re-traumatize members

The Okanagan Indian Band says former day school structures serve as a painful reminder of abuse and colonialism. (Okanagan Indian Band)

Chiefs and councils of First Nations in British Columbia are calling on the federal government to remove school buildings that were once designed to assimilate their people, because they are symbols of trauma and pain.

In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Okanagan Indian Band says it wants to see the former day schools for Indigenous children on its territory, built in the 1920s and 1950s, replaced with facilities to help people heal from trauma.

"For former students of these schools, it's traumatic," Chief Byron Louis told CBC's Daybreak South on Thursday, adding that there hadn't yet been any discussions with the government about the buildings. 

"Removing these buildings takes away the constant reminder [of abuse], and to replace them with other structures that are conducive to intergenerational healing, you [can] start to reconnect the generations that were ripped by … colonialism," Louis said. 

He said more mental health supports should be made available at these sites.

Former day school buildings still used

A release says the buildings on the reserve are linked to two former day schools: Six Mile Creek and the Irish Creek School. One of the sites is still used for students, a second houses the band office, and a third is a congregation centre for elders.

The nation's letter says the community built the structures after being faced with an "impossible choice" between sending its children away to suffer abuse at residential schools in Kamloops or Cranbrook, or building its own schools.

It says it holds Canada and the Roman Catholic Church responsible for the cruel punishment children at the schools were forced to endure, which left many traumatized.

CBC News has contacted the federal government for comment on the letter, but has yet to hear back.

A class-action lawsuit was launched against the federal government in 2009 by those who were forced to attend the day schools and were excluded from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

A settlement, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples who attended federally run day schools, was reached 10 years later in federal court.

Government must fund new centres, nation says

Ken Watts, elected chief of the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C., said he and his community are calling on the federal government to do the same thing for the former Alberni Indian Residential School — of which a communal hall and a gymnasium are still being used by community members.

Watts told CBC's On The Island that the school is well documented for its many abuses, and children "from all up and down the coast were taken out of their homes" to attend.

The recent report of the discovery of remains buried at a former Kamloops residential school has now re-opened wounds in the community, he said.

"The buildings that [still stand] trigger a lot of survivors when they come back to our territory … We never asked for those buildings, and we shouldn't have to pay to tear them down," said Watts. 

In their place, he said he wants a healing centre to help members "reclaim their spirit," and said it's essential the government ensure the space needed for this. 

He said the area's MP, Gord Johns, recently sent a formal request to the House of Commons on behalf of the nation, but has yet to receive a response. 

Gregor Craigie spoke with Ken Watts, the Elected Chief of the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni, about his call to transform the site of its former residential school into a healing centre. 9:57

With files from Adam van der Zwan, On The Island, Daybreak South, and The Canadian Press.

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