Canim Lake elder Lenora Christopher avoided going to residential school by hiding in the bush when the Indian Agent and RCMP came around every year.
Her parents, who both attended residential school themselves, wanted to protect her and teach her their traditional ways. As such, Christopher is considered one of the “hidden ones” – Indigenous children who were able to remain at home and continue to learn their language and culture.
“By hidden one I mean we were brought into the bush where we learned the culture and traditions,” she said.
Christopher and her family recently attended a memorial ceremony at Peter Skene Ogden Secondary School, where they drummed and led prayers for the 215 children whose remains were found buried below the Kamloops Indian Residental School.
The ceremony began with smudging for students and guests to remove negative energy and balance participants. After a brief speech and prayer, Christopher and the other drummers sang the Honour Song which is sung to celebrate and honour someone, in this case the 215 children.
This was followed by The Women’s Warrior Song, a powerful song that invokes strength, said Christopher’s niece Amber Christopher, PSO’s First Nation’s cultural support worker, who organized the event.
“There are still students at PSO who are intergenerational residential school survivors,” Amber said, noting she is one of them.
Christopher said the discovery of the children’s remains was upsetting but not surprising. Her parents and other survivors of St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, including her husband, used to tell her about the children lost in the tunnels nearby. Whenever her family visited Williams Lake, her mother would make a point of driving past the old St. Joseph’s Mission site to say a prayer for the children.
“Our history was always taught verbally from our parents. All they remember is them carrying the children out and never seeing them again,” Christopher said.
While heartbreaking, the mass grave has opened a door for understanding, she said. While her parents and other survivors would tell their stories in the past, only their children would listen. Now they’re finally being heard around the world.
Prior to Friday’s ceremony, Amber and vice-principal Shawn Meville visited each class, explaining what had happened, which Amber found emotionally heavy. A lot of hard questions were asked and she personally felt the ceremony helped everyone release those hard and sad feelings.
As a graduate from PSO’s grad class of 2010, Amber said she’s noticed a change in how SD27 teaches students about residential school. In her day, this wasn’t discussed until Grade 10 Social Studies. Today, they have Orange Shirt Day, Red Dress Day and more open dialogue about systemic racism in Canada. This includes the loss of language and culture, as well as a mistrust of the authorities.
Amber added officers like Const. Jason Flett, who also attended the ceremony, are also working to reconcile with local First Nations people. Her goal, Amber said at the beginning of the ceremony, is to educate, not place blame.
“It’s honestly the best job I’ve ever had. I love working with the kids here, they seek me out which is amazing. It feels like I’m doing something right, I’m getting them interested in their culture.”
Christopher encouraged First Nations youth to take up roles in the community and sing loud and proud with their hearts. It’s how she was taught and she said the Creator is always watching and listening.
“I always tell my children, when there’s an emotion you hold that in because it’s the power you’re going to have to sing that prayer out to the Creator,” Christopher said. “Let’s pray for our elders. Lots of the things they held in was for their own childrens’ safety to not feel the hurt they were going through.”