Sitting in the Parksville Museum courtyard in front of a small crowd, he recalled memories of waking to the sound of a beating drum and his elders singing outside the longhouse. With a soft, slow voice, he remembered being connected to his culture and to his family.
“Oh, that was the most joyous time of my life, when they were building that longhouse,” said Elder Jim Bob from Nanoose First Nations.
His tone darkened and became more serious. “That stayed with me when I went to residential school. That saved me — my culture saved me.”
Bob described his time in residential school as hell and said he is surprised he is still here. “I lost a brothers in and a sister in that school in Port Alberni. One was pushed out of a window — my dear sister, she was pushed down a stairway. It’s hard to talk about because, you know, anyone with family would understand the feeling that someone would have over a loss like that,” he said.
Bob can speak his traditional language, but he said he saw children have needles stuck through their tongues when they spoke their own language in school.
“One guy was a carver — they poked a needle right through his hand. This is the kind of thing that went on pretty well everyday,” he said.
Samuel Stevens, founder of Stevens and Company Law Firm and elder of the Annishnawbeg Nation, said it was estimated around 6,000 children died in residential schools in Canada. He heard many stories in his time as a lawyer about children who died trying to paddle away from schools in canoes. Most survivors, he said, have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)
“I think the ultimate legacy of the residential school is that they realized that it had been a very successful thing in determining that it had killed the Indian in the child. What Murray Sinclair [chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] determined was, in one of his conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was that it was genocide for the First Nations across this country,” said Stevens.
“I am afraid that we were all closed in — we didn’t listen. We didn’t have you talking to us and telling us really what the [harmful] aspects of them were,” said Eva Hilborn, who attended the discussion. She said she had family who worked in residential schools.
“I feel so guilty about the whole thing and I could have tears today when I hear of the stories because I know it is true,” she said.
Bob said it is important for Indigenous culture to be taught and shared within the community.
Parksville Museum recognized Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30 for the first time by inviting people to a discussion with Bob and Stevens.
“You guys are missing out on something here in Parksville — you should be helping natives make a museum, a longhouse, so that we can share our culture with everyone because we are all in the same country here,” said Bob.
The museum said this was the first of what will become an annual event for Orange Shirt Day.
“This is historical significant land and when you walk into here, it doesn’t say that and we on the board… we are aware of that and we are going to be changing that,” said Mary Ellen Campbell, president of Parksville Museum.
The first residential school in Canada opened in 1834, Stevens said. There were 80 across the country at the height of the schools. Stevens said the overall goal of the government was to “civilize” First Nations people and assimilate them into the dominant culture.
“What they did was they took the culture away from the First Nation people and the way to do that was with the children. So you indoctrinate them and eventually they become like the dominant society. In the process, they killed the child in the Indian,” He said.
The last school to close was in Saskatchewan in 1996, he said.