Residential school survivor and Anglican couple forge 'unlikely' friendship

An Anglican church is not your average gathering place for a drum group. But in Sechelt, British Columbia, the group meets once a month because one residential school survivor joined forces with congregation members to educate town folk about the history of Indian residential schools in Canada.

Terry Aleck and John and Nancy Denham unite to hold reconciliation efforts in Sechelt, B.C.

The road to reconciliation

8 years ago
Duration 6:58
CBC's Duncan McCue reports on the reconciliation process with aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians
Terry Aleck warms his hand drum, emblazoned with the crest of a killer whale, and calls for the Family Song
Terry Aleck and Nancy and John Denham hold a monthly aboriginal drumming circle at Saint Hilda's Anglican church in Sechelt, B.C. (CBC)

"To honour my family back home, but this family here, too," Aleck said.

The other drummers in the circle smile. On cue, they raise their voice in song.

It's a bit unusual, because everyone else in the circle is non-aboriginal and this drum group congregates in a church. And Aleck is a survivor of abuse of the most violent kind at an Indian residential school.
Terry Aleck attended the St. Georges Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C. where he suffered repeated sexual abuse. (CBC)

But none of that has stopped John and Nancy Denham, two members of Saint Hilda's Anglican Church in Sechelt, from joining forces with Aleck to educate members of their congregation and citizens in their town about the history of Indian residential schools in Canada.

"My relationship with Terry is unlikely, in that I'm a privileged white male. And Terry is not," says John Denham.

"As I heard more of his story, for him and I to connect, just seemed more and more unlikely."

Broken trust

Aleck's residential school experience is nothing short of horrific.

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He was sent to St. George's Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C. when he was in grade one. At age 9, he was raped by his dormitory supervisor Derrick Clarke. That abuse lasted for four years. Clarke later followed Aleck to Seattle, where the abuse continued through his teen years. It haunted Aleck for much of his adult life, and he turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain.
Historic shot of St. Georges Indian Residential School, which Terry Aleck attended. (Anglican Church)

"I buried that issue for 21 years in my life, then it squeaked out in treatment. That's when my journey began," says Aleck.

Aleck and six other survivors of St. George's sued the Anglican Church and the government of Canada in 1990, the first lawsuit of its kind in Canada. Eleven years later, Aleck would emerge victorious but still harbouring a deep distrust for all white people.

"That trust was broken when 9-year-old Terry was being abused by a white guy. From that age on, I couldn't trust for the longest time."

Shocked by history

The Denhams admit they didn't know much about residential schools, until they happened to stop by the first national event held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Winnipeg in 2010.

"The realization that kids had been forced to go to schools and died there, was just unimaginable and that shocked me," said John Denham.

"I wanted to know more about that. How did it happen, why did it happen and what's going on? We got back and wanted to know more but where do you find that out?"

Upon returning to Sechelt, he attended a drum-making workshop held by Aleck. The two quickly became friends.

"I could see their compassion and their caring in the work they were doing," said Aleck, who had turned to aboriginal teachings for spiritual healing. "It was like, 'Wow! OK, let's journey.'"

I do feel responsible for what is going on now. And things as tragic as residential school are still happening today.- John Denham, member of Saint Hilda's Anglican Church 

Supported by Aleck's gentle nature and openness to share his residential school experiences, the Denham's have spent the past five years learning about residential schools and getting to know their aboriginal neighbours.

"I didn't really have anything to do with residential schools, personally," says John Denham. "To a certain extent, I don't feel guilty about that. But, I do feel responsible for what is going on now.  And things as tragic as residential school are still happening today."

Efforts toward reconciliation

Since meeting Aleck, the Denhams have organized several residential school "dialogue circles" in Sechelt. They helped raised travel money for members of the Sechelt Indian Band to attend the TRC event in Vancouver. Two summers ago, John Denham took his grandson on a Pulling Together canoe journey.

As a more permanent gesture of reconciliation, the Denham's helped raise $30,000 to commission a memorial to children who died at residential schools. The marble piece is being carved by Mohawk artist Michel Beauvais and will be raised on the Sechelt Indian Reserve at the site of the former Indian day school.

"We need to know how we built this country," says Nancy Denham. "And, as my Sechelt friends say, can we go forward in a good way?"
The Denham's are making a deer-hide vest for Aleck, for him to wear at the final TRC event in Ottawa (CBC)

The Denhams were also instrumental in convincing the Anglican Church to honour Aleck at the final Truth and Reconciliation event in Ottawa this week. They made a special deer-hide vest for him for the occasion, hand sewn by Nancy and adorned with two-row wampum beaded by John, who says it's a small token of respect for his friend.

Reconciliation, he says, is a much longer, and sometimes rockier, endeavour.

"In some ways, this has been the easy part: hearing the truth," said John Denham. "Now comes the hard part."


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.