Three Penelakut drummers

Remembering Kuper IslanD Residential School: Thousands march in Chemainus

Warning: This article contains content about residential “schools” that may be triggering. 

By Anna McKenzie,  The Discourse, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

On the shores of the town of Chemainus, on the traditional territory of Puneluxutth’, thousands of people in orange shirts gather in memory of the survivors, victims and intergenerational survivors of Canada’s residential “school” system

Organized by the Penelakut Tribe, the Spune’luxutth Sulxwe’en Memorial Walk (or March for the Children), began at the Chemainus Salish Sea Market on Aug. 2 and continued to Waterwheel Park, where speakers shared their truths, witnesses listened, drummers and dancers performed.

Thousands gather in memory of the survivors, victims and intergenerational survivors of Canada’s residential “school” system in Chemainus, B.C., on Monday Aug. 2, 2021. – Photo by Amy Romer

Food and water stations were provided for participants, and on-call cultural and emotional support was available — including cedar brushing and access to wellness counsellors from Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services and Tsow-Tun Le Lum

Along the walk, many were in tears, embracing each other and leaning on each other as drummers and singers led the way. Parents held their children close, while others held signs calling for action.

Chemainus is a coastal town on the eastern side of Vancouver Island that sits adjacent to Penelakut Island (formerly Kuper Island). Penelakut Island is the site of the former Kuper Island “School,” which is on the traditional territory of the Penelakut Tribe.

The institution was in operation between 1890 and 1975, according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, with the federal government taking over from the Catholic Church in 1969. 

On July 8, the Penelakut Tribe shared that they had confirmed “160+ undocumented and unmarked graves on [their] grounds and foreshore.” 

“We understand that many of our brothers and sisters from our neighbouring communities attended the Kuper Island Industrial School. We also recognize with a tremendous amount of grief and loss, that too many did not return home,” says a letter signed by Penelakut Tribe leadership.

The march prompted people from across Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, and as far as William’s Lake, to come out and show their support.

Children leading the march carry an “Every Child Matters” banner – Photo by Amy Romer

“For over four generations, our history has been stolen as well as our children but we still reach out with our helping hand like our Elders taught us,” former Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum tells attendees. She was recently named an Indigenous liaison to provide advice and expertise to First Nations and the provincial government with respect to the missing children of former residential “schools” in B.C.

Lydia Hwitsum, former Chief of Cowichan Tribes, addresses people gathered on the traditional territory of Puneluxutth’ in Chemainus, B.C. – Photo by Amy Rober

“This is your helping hand,” she says. “To be here, to open your eyes to the history that has caused so much pain, so much hurt, so much despair.”

‘Now they know’

Charlene Belleau is a member of the Esk’etemc First Nation. She attended St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake.

“My great-great-grandpa committed suicide at St. Joseph’s Residential School. They buried him without letting our family know,” she tells the crowd, adding that she hopes that after the Kamloops discovery and through continued efforts, they will find her grandpa. 

Charlene Belleau has been named an Indigenous liaison (along with Hwitsum) to First Nations and the provincial government with respect to the missing children of B.C.’s former residential “schools.” – Photo by Amy Romer

Throughout Alkali Lake, where Belleau and many members of her nation reside, she says, “We’ve been able to enjoy 40 years of sobriety. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve this without hitting residential schools head on. The trauma we experienced — we had circles to resolve that trauma.” 

She says the Esk’etemc Nation have been telling the government and churches that their children never came home for the past 32 years. “And now they know.” 

Tyler works for the Clements Centre, a non-profit in Duncan, B.C., that aims to support youth and adults with developmental needs. – Photo by Amy Romer

Tyler (last name unknown) says he attended the march to assist an Indigenous client and to show his support. 

“The energy has been so strong and positive. I’m with everybody here invoking the change that’s needed.” 

He says he hopes the day’s message reaches beyond the Cowichan Valley. “I hope it gets out to our municipalities, our provincial and our federal [governments] because this is what’s needed — reconciliation.”

Cowichan Elder Joe Thorne. – Photo by Amy Romer

Cowichan Elder Joe Thorne is the Knowledge Keeper for Indigenous education in B.C. and a Cowichan Valley School District trustee. Holding back tears, he speaks on behalf of his school district: “We want to share how much we love children and what this has done to us.”

A member of the Penelakut Dancers during the closing ceremony. – Photo by Amy Romer

On Aug 4, healing sessions for Kuper Island “School” survivors and intergenerational survivors will be offered at the Penelakut School gym from 10:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866 925-4419. Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society aims to provide a “non-judgmental approach to listening and problem-solving.” The crisis line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-588-8717 or go to KUU-US means “people” in Nuu-chah-nulth.

Links of Interest:

Top photo credit: The Penelakut drummers end the ceremony with a song written “for the children that never came back.” Photo by Amy Romer