A trucker convoy heading to Kamloops to honour the 215 children whose remains were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School received honours of its own Saturday as it passed through 100 Mile House.
More than two dozen members of the Tsq’escenemc people (Canim Lake Band), along with members of the 100 Mile House community, cheered the convoy of trucks as they passed by Saturday morning. A dozen drummers stood on the side of Highway 97 outside the South Cariboo Visitor Centre, playing traditional songs that mingled with the horns of honking semis.
The event was organized by Joseph Archie, Canim Lake’s cultural enrichment worker, who said he was blown away by the response to his Facebook post. Archie said the gathering was to show solidarity and support for what the truckers were doing. He was proud to see that the District of 100 Mile House’s Mayor Mitch Campsall and Coun. Chris Pettman, along with the Cariboo Regional District’s Al Richmond and Margo Wagner, had come to join them.
“It brings warmth and helps to heal. It shows someone is doing something which is really good to see,” Archie said. “Seeing the support from different groups of people is pretty amazing.”
This was especially important for residential school survivors like Elizabeth Pete.
Pete attended St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake for several years, starting in the fall of 1954. Before she went, her mother cut her hair short for the first time in her life. Without her long braid, she looked so different that friends from Canim Lake didn’t recognize her at the school.
“In my childhood mind, I think I adapted to the place. My adult mind learned to look back and judge,” Pete said. “I didn’t call that place a prison when I was a child but my adult mind learned to.”
While Pete considers herself one of the luckier survivors, she still remembers the impact the mission had on her life. She wasn’t a victim of sexual abuse, but silence and obedience were expected and enforced by corporal punishment, Pete said. She described how once a nun struck her arms with a yardstick and left a bruise from her elbow to her wrists.
“I remember all of us. We were supposed to be learning, but there was always this tension - this fear. We weren’t relaxed in the classroom. If we didn’t know the answer, then you’d get the ruler across the desk.”
Archie is hopeful the newfound support from the Canadian public will continue in the future, and encouraged the local politicians to pass the message on to higher levels of government.
“Our Prime Minister Trudeau is quick to put the blame on the church but the government could have stopped funding and quit the residential schools but they didn’t,” Archie said. “There’s got to be some accountability there for sure.”
Pete questions how much money the government spent operating the schools over the years and wonders if the government officials who funded them cared or simply turned their backs on children unable to defend themselves. To those in government today who are unwilling to confront this history, she says “shame on them.”
Chief Helen Henderson was also in attendance and said this experience was as heartfelt as it was heart-wrenching. Henderson said the drumming made her heart happy and that she cried when she heard about the convoy.
“The tears flow freely now, and when I see non-Indigenous humans reach out and show their support to all Secwepemc in such a public way, (it) means a lot to us as Secwempec people.”
Henderson said it’s important that everyone remembers that 215 children were denied their “cross over songs.” These songs are sung loud to awaken their ancestors to accept the spirits of the children and Henderson said they’ll continue to sing them until those children are brought home.
“We’re still here. We’re still strong,” Pete said. “When I was hearing about the 215 children in Kamloops I was thinking they had parents. That’s 200-plus mothers, 200-plus fathers. They had paternal grandparents, maternal grandparents. Our communities have extended, tight-knit, families.”
Henderson maintains all the stories about residential school, both known and unknown, need to be heard and acknowledged, for the sake of the new generations.
“I don’t know what reconciliation looks like but events like this are a small step towards reconciliation and recognizing this is our history,” Henderson said. “The more we connect to non-Indigenous folks and teach the history of our culture, our territory and our experiences, I think that it puts us that much closer truly to reconciliation.”