Tseshaht Elder Willard Gallic stands in front of Peake Hall, a dormitory of the Alberni Indian Residential School, after school survivors broke windows and tore off and burned the wood exterior paneling in a ceremonial demolition of the building on Feb. 10.
Glass shatters as a rock, hurled through the air moments earlier, meets its intended target, a window in an old building, a monster lurking in the hearts and minds of Native people across B.C. and beyond.
Another window breaks, and then another. A shocking noise, but satisfying to some, old nails squeak and groan as faded wood panels are ripped away from the building’s exterior. Crowbars pry at window sills. The glass on a set of doors explodes.
Tears flow as the people that are tearing at the building carry pieces of it down a set of stairs to a roaring fire where the debris is piled and burned. What could this building represent to have it so mistreated?
Hurt, pain, violence, hunger, broken dreams and broken families, battered cultures and battered bodies: It is Peake Hall, the dormitory of the Alberni Indian Residential School, the site of unspeakable abuse of young children over the generations.
Survivors of this school gathered on Feb. 10 to find some closure before the dormitory building is demolished by the Tseshaht First Nation. This day the survivors and their families symbolically destroy the physical presence of the nightmare the building represents.
They share stories of the children that were sent to the school who would become forever estranged from their families and their culture. They whisper the stories that parents and grandparents have told about rape and torturous treatment, of being beaten for speaking their Native languages, of being hungry, scrounging through garbage bins for an old bit of potato or other such morsel.
William Matthews, a Gitxsan who attended the school in his youth, had traveled to the event by bus from Hazelton with other survivors and their families. He said it was an emotional but happy day for him.
He had been sexually abused by a school teacher during his time at the school. He said it took a long time to be able to talk about that abuse.
The federal government constructed the school building, but, because it is located in the back yard of the Tseshahts, they have taken up the responsibility to tear the dormitory down. They invited the men and women who attended the school and lived in that dormitory to visit the territory on this occasion, opening their hearts to them as their guests drew a line under their experiences there.
Tseshaht arranged to have the survivors traditionally brushed with smudge and cedar boughs in the longhouse. They wrapped the survivors in blankets, made sure there were councillors on hand to work through the trauma of returning to the site. They sang to them to lift their spirits, and prayed for them to heal their pain. They fed them as well, good medicine for the hungry soul.
Tseshaht’s Chief Councillor Les Sam said Tseshaht would never turn its back on the survivors, helping where they can to deal with their grief.
And Tseshaht’s caring and kindness to the survivors was greatly appreciated, as one after another told the Tseshaht people that they would never be forgotten for what they did that day.
Mel Good, a Snunymuxw who traveled from Nanaimo, said he got his spirit back as parts of the old building burned.
“I am emotional when I am with the Nuu-chah-nulth. My heart opens up.” He had all the Tseshahts stand up to be acknowledged.
“These people opened their doors to all,” he said crying. “I am more at home here than I am in my homeland.”
Good spoke of the northern people who attended the school, and of the Nuu-chah-nulth from around the island who went there. He was concerned that many of the children that went to that place were never to be returned to their parents and communities. Their spirits were stuck in this place, he said.
“A lot of souls are curled up in the fetal position,” he said, “stuck in the walls and the attic” of the dormitory building.
Many survivors said they wanted a chance to call to their relatives to free them from the site.
But Tseshaht had thought of this as well. Elder Willard Gallic assured his guests that the night before there were ceremonies held in the building releasing those spirits from that prison.
Wally and Donna Samuel met in Peake Hall in the 1960s and have been together ever since they left the school, building a strong, cultural family.
He is Ahousaht and she is from the Gitxsan territory.
“I know a lot of bad things happened to people,” he said. Wally made life-long friends at the school, and said he hurts with them for the suffering they endured.
He also worked hard at becoming a good parent and grandparent, reminding the survivors that it can be done despite having been sent to the schools.
“It’s up to you.”
Donna said she woke up that morning with a lot of tears in her heart, but she dragged herself out of bed because she needed the closure.
She said she wanted to shake the hands of the Tseshaht.
“It’s been a good day. I no longer have those tears in my heart.”
A woman, who attended the school for three years in the 1960s, had moved to Nanaimo after living in British Columbia’s interior for a while. She said she didn’t understand why she was dealing with so much stress after the move until she realized it was because there was a monster living just an hour away in Port Alberni.
“I was able to use my own hands to tear a piece of that building,” she said through her tears. The only way she knew how to honor the Tseshahts was with her words, she said.
A-in-chut, Shawn Atleo, the regional chief of British Columbia with the Assembly of First Nations, said he and his brother had come to witness the day’s events. He did not go to the school, but his father Umeek, Dr. Richard Atleo, did attend, so the Atleo brothers did something at the site on his behalf.
Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council President Cliff Atleo, Wickinninish, of Ahousaht, said the day represented another effort to turn the page on the residential school era and all the darkness that came with that time.
“The residential school is a big scar on our lives.”
Willard Gallic spearheaded the day’s events and watched over activities as they unfolded. A lot of people weren’t there, he said, because they had already gone onto the next part of their journey.
“They are dancing and rejoicing up there at what we did here today.”
By Debora Steel