Residential school survivors from all over northern B.C. came together this weekend for a three-day sacred fire healing ceremony at the site of Lejac Residential School in Fraser Lake, 160 km west of Prince George.
The ceremony, hosted by Nadleh Whut’en and Stellat’en First Nations as well as Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS), was intended to honour the 215 children found buried outside of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and to release their souls to the Creator.
The event called, ‘Wiping of the Tears Healing Ceremony’ included four sacred fire pits in four separate quadrants where people could burn letters as an offering or tissues soaked with their tears.
“I was scared to go through that gate because I had bad experiences when I was young here,” said Lejac survivor Zephiria Joseph of Tl’azt’en First Nation, regarding her first day attending the ceremony.
“But I thought I’m coming here and I’m going to leave everything here – all of the bad experiences I went through – just leave it here and never look back.”
Jospeh came to the ceremony with her sister, Rosie Sam, who is also a Lejac survivor.
“When they found those kids in Kamloops, I was so, so, very sad. Even now I cry about it. Three days I just cried. I didn’t know any of them but I just cried,” said Sam, who added she has blocked out most of her memories of Lejac.
The two sisters spent time during the three days walking around the school site, visiting the grave of Rose Prince, sharing their stories and listening to other survivors.
“When I hear stories I think ‘Oh my god she is telling my story. She is telling my story and that is what happened to me.’ You always think I am the only one that went through that hell,” added Joseph.
“We aren’t the only ones but a lot of people don’t want to talk about it.”
The Lejac Residential School was open from 1922 to 1976 and was operated by the Roman Catholic Church. The majority of children who attended were Carrier, although Sekani and Gitksan children also attended.
“I went to Lejac school here but I call it Lejac penitentiary. I did seven-and-a-half years in there,” said Joseph Charlie from Stellat’en First Nation. “With only straps and slapping and physical abuse I got very angry. I was becoming a very angry person.”
Though his experiences deeply affected him, Charlie said he eventually found healing and became a drug and alcohol counselor himself after he became sober in 1985.
“I did some more growing from inside out and I felt more freedom,” added Charlie. “Before I used to walk around angry all of the time and depressed all of the time and feeling bad about life.”
The three-day event concluded with special closing ceremonies and speeches from Indigenous leadership from across the province.
“I know a lot of our Elders here suffered at the residential school and some of them are with us and some of them aren’t,” said Chief Corrina Leween of Cheslatta Carrier Nation and president of CSFS.
“My mother went to Lejac for eight years so it is a real blessing to be here and to listen to the drumming and watch the young children dance and hear their laughter that is in the air with the hurt. Hopefully, these kinds of gatherings can help people to work through the grieving process.”
She said Tk’emlups te Secwepemc finding the 215 children in unmarked graves is a testament to what people went through in residential schools and how they suffered.
“What was described as a school, many of the survivors describe it as a prison or a concentration camp,” said BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee.
“How do we move on beyond this? How do we wipe away the tears and begin the healing process? First, as Indigenous people we gather, we come together, we support each other, we talk about it.”
He called also called for a change in provincial and federal policies before listing every residential school that operated in British Columbia.
“Racism exists. It is alive and well in Canada and British Columbia and in all levels of government. It needs to be dismantled and rebuilt with our involvement as Indigenous peoples.”
Kukpi7 Wayne Christian, Chief of Splatsin and Tribal Chief of the Secwepemc First Nation, attended the closing ceremony on behalf of Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Kukpi7 Roseanne Casimir.
“It’s like those little ones whispered ‘they found us, they found us’ - 215 babies - could you imagine the horror of discovering that and those little one showing themselves at this time of our history,” said Kukpi7 Christian.
“What you are doing here is helping because it is not just the Secwepemc it is all of us. When the news broke it took such a toll on all of us.”
In a blanketing ceremony that followed Kukpi7 Christian gifted Nadleh Whut'en Councillor Theresa Nooski with a blanket and handed out gifts of tobacco for regional chiefs before being wrapped in a gifted blanket himself.
“We really know how to heal ourselves and we are going to continue healing and our ways are going to come back to us,” said Tannis Reynolds, councilor with Stellat’en First Nation.
“These kinds of gatherings we need to have together to be able to heal. Many of our Elders experienced healing over the weekend here.”
The ceremony also included a memorial wall where survivors, family members or allies could write or draw a picture as well as a shoe memorial where the shoes will be donated to First Nations children in need.
Traditional healers and mental health workers were also on-site to provide support and healing activities like Tse Bed, spruce brushing and energy work.
Wiping of the Tears concluded with an honour song sung by Jasmine Thomas from Saik’uz First Nation followed by a burning ceremony.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school students and their families. If you are in need of counselling or support call the 24-hour national crisis line at 1-866-925-4419.