British Columbia

B.C. residential school survivor makes comfort quilts for those who lost everything in Lytton

Verna Miller was already reeling from the preliminary discovery of over 200 grave sites on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School when a horrific fire destroyed the homes of many of her loved ones. Looking for a way to help, she started to sew.

Horrific fire and grave findings at former schools left Verna Miller feeling helpless. So she started to sew

Verna Miller is photographed in her Kamloops home where she is busy making quilts to be delivered to victims of the Lytton fire. (Doug Herbert/CBC News)

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

Verna Miller was feeling helpless.

A survivor of the St. George's Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C., Miller said when she heard about the possible discovery of 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, it left her barely functioning.

Then, a catastrophic fire tore through Lytton that levelled her husband's childhood home and rendered many of her loved ones homeless. According to local government officials, about 90 per cent of the village's buildings are no longer standing.

The "double whammy" of events, said Miller, was so devastating she realized that in order to cope with it all she could not stay idle.

"All these things started to well up," she said. "I gotta stay busy."

So she started to sew.

A building in Lytton is engulfed in flames on June 30, 2021. More than 1,000 people were forced to leave their homes that evening as a wildfire tore through the small B.C. village. (2 Rivers Remix Society)

Comfort in quilting

Miller, a member of the the Nlaka'pamux Nation who is also known by her Indigenous name Pepeyla, meaning frog, lives in Kamloops with her husband Jack Miller.

Their home is now filled with piles of plaid, fabric squares and all manner of quilt-making materials as Verna Miller busies herself sewing quilts for those who lost everything in Lytton.

"It just makes you feel good to know you are going to bring comfort to someone," she said. "Just wrap it around when you are feeling really awful ... mainly, they're comfort quilts."

Jack Miller's father built what was Jack's childhood home in Lytton in 1947 and Verna's sister was living in it at the time of the fire. 

"It was mind-numbing because it happened so quickly," said Jack, adding wistfully that the house was "kind of special to me."

Meet the Millers, Jack and Verna. Jack Miller's father built his family's home in Lytton in 1947 and the couple has many connections with the small village, which is now essentially a pile of rubble after a devastating fire. (Doug Herbert/CBC News)

Nearly 200 quilts made in 2017

This is not the first time Jack Miller has watched his wife go above and beyond to bring people some solace after a sickening fire.

In the summer of 2017, Verna Miller and a few friends made almost 200 comfort quilts for people in and around Ashcroft, B.C., whose homes were destroyed in what was then a record-breaking wildfire season, before 2018 turned out to be even worse.

The Elephant Hill fire of 2017 scorched nearly 1,920 square kilometres of land, ravaging the Ashcroft, Boston Flats, Loon Lake and Pressy Lake areas of the B.C. Interior. The fire levelled more than 120 homes over 76 days and thousands were forced from their homes.

The Elephant Hill fire, which was human-caused, whipped through the cemetery at the Ashcroft Indian Reserve in July 2017. The 2017 wildfire was one of the biggest natural disasters in B.C.'s history, burning nearly 1,920 square kilometres of land and numerous homes over 76 days. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"We would just sew our brains out," said Verna Miller, who still remembers how wonderful it felt to give the Ashcroft Volunteer Fire Department a quilt depicting crews battling the blaze.

Another stand-out quilt from that year she said went to an elder from the Ashcroft Indian Band who she referred to as an "old cowboy." His quilt was detailed with Indigenous cowboy images.

"I think they were quite overwhelmed," she recounted.

Verna Miller, front row third from right in blue, sits with comfort quilt recipients in Ashcroft, B.C., following devastating wildfires that ravaged the region in the summer of 2017. (Submitted by Jack Miller)

Volunteers welcome

This summer, it's the Millers who are a bit overwhelmed.

The place they fell in love, where so many of their loved ones lived, is virtually gone. And across the country, more and more First Nations are revealing evidence of horrific secrets buried on their territories.

"I don't even know what to say anymore," said Verna Miller. "I'm just devastated."

But she does know what she will do, and that's keep putting quilts together to help others in need.

And she could use some help herself.

If you are in the Kamloops area and would like to support or help out with the comfort quilts, you can stop by Heather's Fabric Shelf, Katja's Quilt Shoppe, or Fabricland in Kamloops and ask about the comfort quilts for Lytton.

Verna Miller has also made quilting kits she can give to people so they can build blankets at home. She does not have the money to pay professionals.

"If I max my card out Jack is going to be extremely angry with me," she said with a laugh. "If you can sew a straight line that's a big help."

Verna and Jack Miller speak to the CBC's Doug Herbert about their connection to the village of Lytton, B.C. and Verna's decision to make quilts to comfort those who lost everything in a devastating fire that destroyed most of the community. 8:22

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.

Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous-specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's toll free and can be reached at 1-800-588-8717 or online at kuu-uscrisisline.com.

With files from Doug Herbert

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