British Columbia

Residential school survivor finds forever homes for shoes, stuffies left at vigil for Kamloops children

Lou-ann Neel, from the Kwagiulth people of the Kwakwaka’wakw, found herself with hundreds of shoes and stuffies after organizing a vigil for the children of the former Kamloops residential school — and then found families with children who could use and love them.

Lou-ann Neel was left with hundreds of items after organizing commemoration event in Victoria

Residential school survivor Lou-ann Neel, right, with her sister Joani Glendale on the steps of a Catholic church in Victoria. Neel has found homes with primarily First Nations families for an estimated 200 stuffed animals and 100 pairs of children's shoes left at a vigil to honour the children who never came home from a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. (Submitted by Lou-ann Neel)

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

In the wake of a heart-wrenching discovery on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia's Interior, a school survivor from the province's coast has found a way to bring joy to some Indigenous families.

Lou-ann Neel, from the Mamalilikulla and Kwagiulth people of the Kwakwaka'wakw, left her home community in Alert Bay to attend residential school in Port Alberni, B.C., at age six.

After the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported they had found the preliminary remains of 215 children who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Neel, who now lives and works in Victoria, organized a memorial in the city where people could reflect and pay their respects. 

As happened at memorial events across the country, crowds of people came to collectively grieve and left hundreds of stuffed animals and pairs of children's shoes to commemorate the dead.

"Being a residential school survivor, the way that hit me, the way I felt so numb... nobody knew the words to say, nobody knew how to feel," said Neel, acting head of the Indigenous collections and repatriation department at the Royal B.C. Museum.

But after seeing the objects being placed in memoriam, she knew what she wanted to do — find children who would love these treasures like those 215 students would likely have done, had they been given the chance.

Neel, currently the acting head of the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation Department at the Royal B.C. Museum, helped organize a vigil and prayer ceremony at Mungo Martin House in Thunderbird Park, next to the museum, on May 31. (Submitted by Lou-ann Neel)

Neel organized the vigil and prayer ceremony on May 31 in front of Mungo Martin House, a Kwakwaka'wakw big house next to the museum, along with her cousin Colleen Smith.

She said she spoke with mourners to ensure they were comfortable with her eventually re-homing the items they were leaving. But she said when she approached non-profit organizations with the idea, she had trouble finding one that would take accept the shoes and toys.

Neel said she was moved by the memorial installations that showed up in other cities, like the one shown here on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and encouraged people in Victoria to bring shoes or a stuffie to the capital city memorial event as well. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

So Neel reached out to people in her own community to help get the word out. Through those contacts, she said, she was able to find forever homes for half of the 415 stuffed animals collected, and close to 100 pairs of children's shoes.

Before any little arms could hug those stuffies or little feet could slip into those shoes, Neel said she did what her training as a Kwakwaka'wakw woman taught her to do.

"I handled every single one of those shoes and handled every single one of those stuffies and sang to them for four days and just offered prayers for them for four days," she said.

Shoes and stuffed animals on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on June 4, at a memorial to honour the 215 children whose remains were discovered buried there, according to a preliminary report. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The outpouring of grief and love from mourners meant there were more items than homes Neel could arrange for them.

Remaining items were taken to the St. Andrew's Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church in downtown Victoria, and placed on the steps on a Sunday morning while mass was in session.

The Roman Catholic Church was responsible for operating up to 70 per cent of residential schools, according to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at 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.

With files from On The Island and Jean Paetkau