British Columbia

Central B.C. First Nations hold ceremony honouring residential school victims, survivors

First Nations in central B.C. have spent three days hosting a special ceremony for healing after the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced ground penetrating radar had detected hundreds of potential unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in late May.

Nadleh Whut'en First Nation, Stellat'en First Nation hold 3-day healing ceremony at former residential school

People gather at a special three-day ceremony in Lejac, B.C., from June 18 to June 20, to provide healing following the announcement that 215 suspected unmarked graves were identified at a former residential school in Kamloops. (Catherine Hansen/CBC News)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

First Nations in central B.C. have spent three days hosting a special ceremony for healing after the the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of suspected unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last month.

The Nadleh Whut'en First Nation and Stellat'en First Nation along with Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS) held the event, called Wiping of the Tears Healing Ceremony, at the site of a former residential school in Lejac, about 150 kilometres west of Prince George.

"We hold up the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc during this sorrowful time," said Mary Teegee, the executive director of CSFS in a release.

"Our healing journey is made lighter by being united in heart and spirit; our show of support through the sacred fire reminds us that we are all bound together. Our role now is to be the voice of those long silenced, to fight the good fight and to honour those we have lost by taking care of those who are still here." 

In late May the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School confirmed the remains of 215 children, but a few days later clarified their statement to say the survey had identified what is believed to be unmarked burial sites.

The revelation created a national outpouring of outrage, sympathy and reflection about Canada's residential school system, which operated as part of an assimilation effort imposed on Indigenous peoples to destroy their cultures and suppress their language.

Hundreds of shoes are placed on steps by the Pacific Association of First Nation Women in Vancouver, B.C., following the announcement that 215 suspected unmarked graves were identified at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Many impromptu memorials were set up around the country that featured shoes to represent the victims of Canada's residential school system.

In Prince George, the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation asked for the memorial there to be turned into a permanent monument.

In Lejac over the weekend, the ceremony was open to the public and featured four sacred fire pits to accommodate physical distancing requirements due to the pandemic.

A memorial wall was erected for survivors, family members of survivors, and others to post messages or images. At the end of the three-day ceremony all of the notes and pictures are to be burned.

'Finding my voice'

Emma Williams said the ceremony was an important part of moving toward reconciliation. Williams was forced to attend Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake, B.C., which was operated by the same Catholic diocese that ran Lejac. 

"This means a lot of healing for us," she said. "To come together and heal our pain because we've hidden our pain for so many years, hardly anyone wants to talk about it. I don't know what the reason is, maybe its too painful. It was for me, for me it was really painful, but now I'm finding my voice."

One of four sacred fire pits in Lejac, B.C., is shown on Sunday at the Wiping of the Tears Ceremony. (Catherine Hansen/CBC News)

The memorial also featured donations of new shoes, which following the ceremony are to be donated to First Nations children.

The ceremony also had traditional healers and workers to support the mental health of attendees.

"The legacy of the residential schools continues to have negative impacts on the health and well-being of many Indigenous people," said Chief Corrina Leween of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation and president of Carrier Sekani Family Services.

She is calling on governments and religious institutions to implement the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

The Lejac Residential School made national headlines in the late 1930s when four boys — two aged seven, and an eight- and nine-year-old — were found dead, their bodies frozen while trying to cross Fraser Lake in northern B.C. after running away. The school remained open until 1976.

WATCH | Lejac residential school survivors gather for healing ceremony in central B.C.:

Lejac residential school survivors gather for healing ceremony in central B.C.

1 year ago
Duration 2:10
Several B.C. First Nations hosted a three-day ceremony to help survivors and their families at the former Lejac residential school site west of Prince George.

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article said Emma Williams is a residential school survivor. In fact, she was forced to attend Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake, B.C., which is not defined as a residential school because students returned home on a more regular basis.
    Jun 21, 2021 4:42 PM PT
  • A previous version of this story stated the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops residential school. In fact, at the time the story was published, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc had clarified their initial statement to say ground penetrating radar had identified what is believed to be unmarked burial sites.
    Jun 08, 2022 11:16 AM PT

With files from Catherine Hansen

now