It was the beginning of a new healing journey for Tl’etinqox women as the orange braided ribbons of a dream catcher strung with 91 ties of tobacco burned in a small fire at the site where one of Canada’s most notorious residential schools once stood.
The ties symbolized the 91 years St. Joseph’s Mission operated just south of Williams Lake in the traditional territory of Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN).
“I think even though the building is gone, the tears haven’t gone yet,” said Melanie Johnny.
“A lot of them didn’t go home, and those that went home didn’t really go home because they’re still stuck here in a lot of ways.”
Held early Wednesday afternoon (Dec. 2) on a day with strong winds mixed amid the winter chill, the ceremony was part of a video project led by Tl’etinqox Women’s Council, of which Johnny and Angelina Stump are representatives.
Johnny said First Nations parents were threatened their children would be taken away by authorities if they refused to send them to residential school.
For three years, she attended the Mission located just a few kilometres from the WLFN community of Sugar Cane, but more than 100 kilometres from her Tsilhqot’in community west of Williams Lake.
“Not only did things happen at the school itself, but out on the land,” Johnny said, noting the various levels of abuse that occurred, including spiritual, physical and sexual.
Her six brothers and five sisters also attended, and she recalled hearing of how a small group of boys snuck away from their main fishing group on the frozen waters of Williams Lake. Some had fallen through the ice, Johnny said she had heard.
Those who managed to pull themselves out ran back to the main group for help but were instead immediately reprimanded and disbelieved.
“So they didn’t come back come,” she said of the trapped boys.
Attended by Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars and Tl’etinqox Chief Joe Alphonse, Johnny said the ceremony was to ease the insurmountable sufferings that happened and to move forward in a good way.
“Today was a good start,” said Alphonse, who gifted Williams Lake RCMP Const. Adam Hildebrandt a spirit stick carved in the shape of a raven.
“As I told Chief Sellars, the road for healing is often a drive through his community,” Alphonse said. “And we’re here to work with them and to make sure that healing happens.”
Sellars said the opportunity to participate in a ceremony with another First Nation and learn, is another way to heal.
“I’m going to be able to tell this story to my kids and my community and move forward in a good way, and I’ll be forever grateful for that,” Sellars said.
The video project —‘Strength and Resiliency of Tl’etinqox Women” — is funded by the Government of Canada’s department of Canadian Heritage. Once complete, it will be shown in Tl’etinqox and possibly Williams Lake, said project coordinator Chastity Davis.
For 10 months of the year, thousands of Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in and Southern Dakelh Carrier children and youth as young as four years old would forcibly attend the Mission until its closure in 1981.