Stories flowed heavy along with tears on Sunday as Nuu-chah-nulth residential school survivors shared their experiences of sexual abuse, torture and loss during an Every Child Matters walk in Ucluelet.
Jennifer Touchie of Ucluelet First Nation organized the Aug. 15 event that saw about 100 supporters walk through town from the fire hall to Tugwell Fields wearing orange shirts, banging on traditional drums and holding signs reading ‘They were children 6509+’, ‘Bring them home’ and ‘Daughter of a Survivor’.
“This acknowledges all of us. We know the truth needs to come out. No more hiding. This is how we are going to make a movement. This is just the beginning, we will be doing other walks,” said Touchie.
People travelled from Hesquiaht, Tofino, Ty-histanis, Hitacu and Port Alberni to participate in the walk, and many non-Indigenous supporters joined too, including Tofino Mayor Dan Law, Ucluelet Secondary School principal Carol Sedgwick, MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim Josie Osborne and NDP candidate Gord Johns.
“Thank you for bringing us together. I want to recognize all the survivors and the families for the strength and their courage for being here. I want to recognize all the leaders in the community for standing in solidarity,” said Johns.
“For children to have gone to school and never come home, it’s not a tragedy, it’s genocide. The Government of Canada has a duty to investigate the crimes that took place there and to do everything they can to support those communities for healing,” he said.
Residential school survivors were asked to come forward and stand together in front of the crowd, and many of them spoke, choking back tears, about their experiences.
Ucluelet First Nation Larry Baird is a survivor of the Alberni Indian Residential School and the Nanaimo Indian Hospital. Baird said he was sexually abused as a young boy when he was at the Nanaimo Indian Hospital.
“You are talking to Larry Baird the child. There is a real mixture of emotions. We are just trying to get better. We are the living proof of what happened. I don’t have time to explain to you whether you were in residential school for two years, 10 years or 15 years what happened. It happened. Believe it,” said Baird, adding the Government of Canada compensated him, but he gave most of it away because it just didn’t make up for what happened.
“I was raped. I have a graphic record that anyone can see. I went through many boxes of tissues,” he said.
Vice president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Mariah Charleson, 33, grew up in Hot Springs Cove in Hesquiaht First Nation territory, a place that is only accessible by boat or floatplane. She spoke about what it means to belong to the first generation of Indigenous peoples that were not taken from their homes. She likened residential schools to “genocide camps or child prisons”.
“We have to feel uncomfortable. We have to listen to every survivor,” said Charleson.
At the end of the gathering, Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Hjalmer Wenstob offered a traditional brushing ceremony to all the survivors and relatives to cleanse them from the negative, bring strength and help with the healing journey.
There were three residential schools in the West Coast region: Ahousaht Residential School in Ahousaht First Nations territory on Flores Island (1904 -1940), Christie Residential School in Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations territories, Tofino/Meares Island (1900 -1983), and Alberni Indian Residential School in Tseshaht First Nations territory, Port Alberni (1900 -1973).
On Aug. 13, the British Columbia Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, announced funding of $1.028 million for the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni to work with Survivors, intergenerational Survivors, knowledge keepers and leaders to address the location, documentation, maintenance and commemoration of burial sites associated with the Alberni Indian Residential School, and to provide mental health and wellness supports to community members.
In late June 2021, the Province allocated $12 million for communities near three former “Indian hospital” sites as well as 18 former residential school sites, including Christie Residential School and Ahousaht Residental School. First Nation communities with a former Indian Residential School site could apply for up to $475,000. For Ahousaht First Nation and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation the application for funding is still in process and the Nations are navigating the preliminary stages in their delicate search for the unmarked graves of lost family members.