A First Nations child running across the edge of the field at 150 Mile House in the 1950s is for me an indelible memory. That child desperately must have wanted to escape the St. Joseph’s Residential School next to the Onward ranch, to go home.
For those who don’t know the local geography near St. Joseph’s Mission—the “Mission” as we used to call it, (the residential school), was on the road that goes from the Sugar Cane community of the Williams Lake First Nation (official name as of 2020) through the San Jose river valley, ending back at highway 97 near the 147 Mile.
In all likelihood that child was heading to Sugar Cane, or some other First Nations community in a round-about way, hopefully avoiding detection. Just imagine what was going on in that young head and heart!
In those days there was a modest attempt at integrating First Nations boys into the Air Cadet Squadron, probably the only one in Canada, which was located at a residential school. Some girls at the residential school had an opportunity to play in a bagpipe band. It became quite well known.
It is my understanding that, at the time, the Government of Canada was doing research on the nutritional needs of the students at the various residential schools, including this one. It seems the federal government wanted to minimize the food budget given to the church schools.
I mention this because attending the air cadets weekly “parade” meant cadets would get one snack, at what was called “mug up:” thin hot chocolate and a sandwich or a cookie at the end of practise marching and some classroom learning about Air Force skills.
Target practice was one of the favorites of all the cadets if my memory serves me.
Many of us made great friends from First Nations communities. Those friendships have lasted a lifetime.
Most of us from the outside did not realize the depths of the hurt, although to a person, none of us outsiders thought the separation from family and cultural-extinguishing strategies of church and government was welcomed by the First Nations students.
It is the loss of control of the land and access to it for traditional food and medicine gathering and traditional cultural practices that has been a focal point in settler and First Nations relationships.
Some research has shown that it is the lack of access and recognized ownership to land, that is the most outstanding grievance.
As ranchers, I think we have to work at re-establishing a workable sharing of the land and allow access where possible for traditional activities. The leadership in the BC Cattlemen’s has recently added a committee to work on rebuilding the relationship between members and their neighbouring First Nations.
We can all take a reconciliatory approach to our neighbours and find the “live and let live” arrangements. In that vein the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association has, in its recently completed strategic plan, identified rebuilding a positive relationship as a priority.
In doing this, we have to start with finding common ground on issues, finding things we can agree on, and look for some early wins. Then we can tackle the harder issues building on trust and mutual respect.
No one says this is going to be easy.
For the children who were so brave to run away from the mission (how can one “run away” to home?), let’s all of us seek out the opportunity to gain common ground on the land and work out how we can share its use and care.
David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.