The fire is lit as the assembled guests bow their heads or gaze out at the grey water just off Ambleside beach.
A long silence follows signalling a time for reflection and prayer.
A crowd of about 60 people is gathered early Monday morning near The Welcome Figure for a sacred fire ceremony hosted by members of the Squamish Nation. The event is being held to mark the beginning of Truth and Reconciliation week, a week of events to remember and share residential school experiences.
It takes a while for the stacked wood to burn down to embers, and nobody speaks while they wait. As the fire reaches a low point, speakers talk of remembrance and moving forward. They also speak of connectedness.
"As human beings we are of one heart and one mind, and in that oneness we're not to hurt each other anymore. We're not to hurt each other anymore," says one speaker.
Among the crowd, five-year-old Thunder Joseph-Rice has been quietly observing with his family. After it's over, he stands with his mom and his aunt, who helped organize the event, as they explain the meaning behind the ceremony. Thunder does not seem too interested in the North Shore News photographer's impressive camera or the reporter taking notes. Instead, he lets us know that his Spider-Man shoes flash when he walks. He doesn't need much prompting to demonstrate.
As the remnants of the sacred fire are doused with water, the significance of the ceremony can be seen in a young boy whose Spider-Man shoes light up: If this was just a few generations ago, Thunder would likely not have been here. Taken from his family, he would have been placed in a residential school.
• • •
As far as six-year-old Sam George knew, it was a normal day as he walked toward Keith Road with his father, his brother and his two sisters from his home on the Mission reserve in North Vancouver. He didn't know where they were going. They didn't have suitcases or any belongings with them except for the clothes they were wearing.
The last thing he remembers his father saying to the school principal that morning was "Take care of my children."
Sam was then separated from his father and his siblings and began a new life at St. Paul's Indian Residential School, which stood where St. Thomas Aquinas secondary stands today. The siblings were separated into different dorms, and Sam discovered some of his cousins were there as well.
Sam remembers a man, who he later learned was an Indian agent, visiting his home a short time before he was taken to the school. He remembers his parents were visibly upset and angry. His mom was crying, but he didn't know why at the time.
He doesn't know exactly how many days later he was taken to St. Paul's, but he clearly remembers what happened next.
Sam alleges that during his seven-year stay at St. Paul's he suffered verbal, physical and sexual abuse. The details of his experience are heart wrenching.
"You learn your techniques of survival," says Sam of his time at the school.
In 1959, St. Paul's was shut down and Sam, then 13, and his siblings were allowed to leave. They walked together to their home just four blocks away.
"I was very happy," he says of the school closure. But the damage was done.
"My life changed," says Sam.
By then, his parents had separated because as Sam says, "They had nobody to take care of." And although they live close by, to this day the four siblings are still somewhat disconnected.
"We don't have that bonding. Although I love them, we don't have that bonding," says Sam.
It was difficult to reintegrate into his family and community after leaving the school, and Sam says he was full of anger caused by his experience at St. Paul's. He started drinking and that anger turned to violence. At 15 years old, he ended up in prison for four-and-a-half years on an assault charge. In a sad statement about justice, Sam says to his knowledge none of those responsible for his abuse were ever charged for what they did.
After he was released from prison at age 20, Sam continued to have trouble with drugs and alcohol. Although he has been clean and sober for 23 years, he says it has only been in the last 13 years that he has been able to come to terms with what happened to him.
"I just finally accepted that I had nothing to do with it. I had no control over what happened to me. I was a child," he explains.
Sam worked as a longshoreman for 43 years and has two children. His residential school experience also affected his kids.
"I had no parenting skills at all," he admits. He is still working on his relationships with his children, but says thankfully they seem to be doing much better as parents than he did.
In the end, Sam says the only thing that really saved him was going back to his culture.
"It was so medieval, so cruel," he says of the treatment he witnessed and received. It was a treatment meant to separate him from his culture.
"I was ashamed to be an Indian for a long time but nothing ever changed it. They tried to change us. They did succeed in ways, but we're still here."
Now retired, Sam works as an elder counsellor helping other people return to their aboriginal culture.
• • •
"The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. Nous le regrettons. We are sorry."
In an official apology issued in June 2008 on behalf of Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that the Government of Canada was wrong to forcibly remove aboriginal children from their homes to residential schools.
The main objective of the schools was to assimilate aboriginal children into the dominant culture. The government became involved in the administration of residential schools in 1874, and according to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the government operated nearly every school as a joint venture with various religious groups, including Anglican, Presbyterian, United and Roman Catholic churches. The government began to close many residential schools by the mid-1970s, but the last one didn't shut its doors until 1996.
It is estimated that at least 150,000 aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in residential schools. According to the court-ordered Truth and Reconciliation Commission, part of whose mandate is to create a public record of residential school experiences, "hundreds, if not thousands," of those children never returned home. The commission is working with a missing children's group to uncover how many of those children died, how they died and where they are buried.
There have been widespread allegations from survivors that they experienced various forms of abuse at residential schools, and as a result many came together in a class-action suit against the government and the churches involved. The suit was resolved with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement reached in September 2007. The settlement allowed for two types of compensation payments to residential school survivors: a common experience payment for those who were forced to attend the schools and a separate compensation for claims of sexual or serious physical abuse. After recounting his experiences to an adjudicator, Sam George was among those survivors who received compensation through the settlement.
As Harper recognized in his apology, the legacy of residential schools contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today.
Reaching out to survivors to help facilitate discussion of recovery and healing was one of the key goals of Truth and Reconciliation week events.
Karen Joseph, executive director of Reconciliation Canada, which helped organize the sacred fire ceremony at Ambleside, says the week's events were held "to remind us that we're all one, and to connect us to our shared humanity so that we could weave all of our strengths together and build a stronger future going forward."
Reconciliation Canada is a charitable project started by her father, Chief Robert Joseph, to help build relationships between aboriginal people and all Canadians.
"It's about moving beyond apologies and actually doing something to create a longstanding difference for our people," says Karen.
• • •
Creating a longstanding difference involves breaking the cycle of abuse and addiction caused by the residential school legacy, says Derrick George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. It was an important step in his own recovery. Both of Derrick's parents were survivors of residential schools, but Derrick, who is now 51, is part of the first generation of aboriginal children who weren't forced into residential schools. However, he says the legacy was still felt in his home growing up on the Burrard reserve, where he still lives with his three teenaged sons. Derrick says as an adult he struggled with addictions on and off but when his first son was born he knew he had to change.
"I did know that if I didn't do something to smarten myself up the cycle was going to continue and I probably would have lost my boys to the ministry. So I got clean and sober."
He says he believes addiction is still a real problem among aboriginal youth and the root causes can be traced back to residential schools.
"I believe that if my dad had the help that I have today, I probably wouldn't have went through that," he says.
"I think maybe to a certain degree they did know how to parent, it's just that they didn't know how to deal with their anger. I think that's the problem. And that anger has been pushed on to the next generation, which is going on to the next generation."
Derrick's father was a great athlete and used sports as a way out at the residential school he attended in Sechelt since athletes sometimes got to travel for meets. He later made sports a priority for his own three sons who were all invited to try out for the Canucks. Unfortunately, none of them made the team because they were too small.
Continuing the tradition, Derrick has used sports as a way to connect with his own sons and keep them healthy, and over the years he has coached soccer, lacrosse, boxing, track and canoeing.
"I believe there are many of us that could have made professional sports, actually quite easily, but they never did it because of their addictions, and the addictions are caused by the residential school system."
Making sure his sons enjoyed and succeeded at school was also an important goal he had as a parent. All three of his sons face learning challenges, but the oldest two have graduated from high school and the youngest one is well on his way.
"I'm very proud of my sons. They chose on their own to work hard in school and they've done the very best that they can," says Derrick.
Although not easy to do, Derrick believes that talking about their experiences, letting go, and ultimately learning to forgive are important steps in recovery for residential school survivors and their families.
"One of the things my late uncle (Academy Award-nominated actor and Tsleil-Waututh chief Dan George) taught me was that a real warrior overcomes his greatest enemy: himself," says Derrick. "To me it means ultimately discovering the truth about yourself. And that's what I practise and that's what I teach my sons."
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