With shouts of “Close that door!” piercing the air, a bulldozer ripped through the entryway of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School bringing a symbolic end to a dark period in Canadian history.
The destruction, followed by the opportunity to release pain and anger by throwing stones and pieces of brick through the glass windows of the school, was part of an I’tustolagalis – Rising up, Together – pre-demolition ceremony held at Alert Bay Wednesday, Feb. 18.
St. Michael’s school, which opened in 1929, held aboriginal children from northern Vancouver Island, Bella Bella, Bella Coola, the Nisga’a territories and Haida Gwaii. It closed in 1975.
“St. Michael’s is a symbol and stark reminder of a dark chapter in our history,” said John Rustad, B.C. Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, in a release.
“More than 150,000 Aboriginal children in Canada were removed from their homes and placed in government-funded, church-run schools like St. Michael’s. We recognize the deep scars inflicted on children who attended these schools. And we acknowledge and honour the courage of survivors, their families and all those who suffered. As we look to the future, we share a great hope and optimism for healing and reconciliation,” said Rustad.
The ceremony included drumming, prayers and the lighting of candles as well as a moment of silence for children who never returned from the school.
The day was filled with pain and many tears, but also hope for the future.
“We want to turn our own page. We are the only ones who can turn our own page,” said Alex Nelson.
“It is my great honour to stand here today, to welcome you to the ancestral lands of the ‘Namgis people, to celebrate our resilience and to support one another on our healing journeys,” said ‘Namgis Chief Debra Hanuse.
“It’s a real honour to be a survivor’s voice today,” to speak “for all the little children from across this land who had to come to schools like this,” said Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, Reconciliation Canada ambassador.
Joseph said children were taken from their homes and placed in 130 schools like St. Michael’s where they were stripped of their language and their culture.
“It’s difficult to comprehend how people could treat other people the way they treated us,” he said.
“This is such an historic moment for us. This building is a blight upon this land and a blight upon our consciousness,” he said.
Graduation is typically a time of celebration, but Joseph, who was taken away from his family and placed in the school at the age of five, remembers when the time came for him to leave “I stood at those steps broken and in despair.”
But, “it’s not all sadness,” he said. “People agree with us that we can build a new future together. You’re part of something great,” he told the crowd.
“We can change the world. We are not alone any more,” he said.
“We’re not going to be victims forever. We’re going to heal and one day we will be free.”
“I am humbled to be here today. I present a part of my heart that is heavy, that is dark,” said Anglican Diocese of British Columbia Bishop Logan McMenamie.
“These children suffered physical, sexual, cultural abuse. On behalf of myself, I reiterate our (the Anglican Church’s) apology to you, McMenamie said.
“We were wrong and we failed you.
“I am sorry that we failed you. That we failed ourselves and that we failed the Creator,” he said.