Thirty years ago Diane Harris, my best friend, sister-in-law and then social worker for Stz’uminus First Nation convinced me that Kuper Island Residential School, where her parents (my in-laws) and many local First Nations kids went to school, was a central cause for the trauma and dysfunction being experienced in her community. And, she said, no one was talking about it. She then convinced me to go with her while she interviewed former students. She said she would interview and I would take notes. Over a couple of months during the summer of 1991 we talked to 70 people. Several people pointed their finger at me and said that they were only talking to me because I was writing it down and they wanted me to tell people…to tell the world what had happened at the school.

Afterwards I filed my writing pads in my desk. I couldn’t even reread my notes. I had no courage to write and no will to tell. My own life was coming unhinged, partly as a generational effect of the Kuper Island school. I was devastated from the stories I’d heard, heartbroken by my family’s own suffering and conflicted about my role, a white woman, in the whole tragedy.

I had a debilitating case of “who the hell are you to say or write anything?” It’s been a life long condition that has constantly had me waffling between thinking I should share my experiences and knowledge and burying my stories to avoid criticism. Diane is pretty much fully responsible for convincing me to write anything at all. She shamed me into writing. “You always tell people they should not be afraid to tell their truths and share their stories,” she lectured me. “Then why are you afraid?” I’m still afraid, but as Diane continues to tell me “Quit that now.”

Back to the Kuper Island interviews; Diane wouldn’t let up on me. “You promised you would write the story,” she said. A day never went by when I wished I hadn’t promised. I just couldn’t do it. We talked and talked about what we had heard. We went over the notes and I jotted down glimpses I remembered and thoughts that she shared with me. We came up with an abbreviated rendition of our notes called “the interview”.

The former students we spoke to also asked us to put on a gathering so they could share their stories amongst themselves. Diane and I, in spite of threats from the Catholic Church and from First Nations people who didn’t want the stories told, arranged the first residential school conference in the country. Phil Fountaine led the discussions along with the late Delmar Johnnie from Cowichan.

Diane invited Christine Welsh, a Metis filmmaker, and Peter Campbell from Gumboot Productions, to film the Kuper Island gathering. (I’ve attached Kuper Island: A return to the healing circle.) Diane also helped organize the healing ceremony on Penelekut Island that you can see in the film. She set up a table and invited people to bring photos of their family who lost their lives because of the school. The table was filled with images, not just of the children who didn’t return from the school and were buried on the school site, but of those who did return but died early, tragically, either from TB or other health conditions or from the trauma of the experience of the Kuper Island school.

The film turned out to be the best way to get the story out, the one I could not write and could not tell. It will be rereleased this fall with a new name, Penelakut: Returning to the Healing Circle.

Finally in 2000 Rita Morris, Ann Sam (both from WOJELEP First Nation) and I found a way to tell the stories of the Kuper Island school. They were kids’ stories so we wrote them for kids. We worked with 6 elders from WASANEC who listened to the stories I wrote and gave us feedback on everything from the tone of the language to what they actually ate at the school to the type of vehicles that were around at the time. The stories, made fiction, can be found in the book No Time To Say Goodbye. It came out 20 years ago and is still being sold with all the proceeds going towards First Nations’ youth activities.

My apologies for repeating some of what I wrote in an earlier post. Diane was in Nanaimo Hospital during the amazing Kuper Island Residential School walk in Chemainus a few weeks ago. I brought her photos and “the interview,” the only writing that we managed to produce in those early years. It’s never been published or widely shared. They are not my words or Diane’s they come directly from the interviews that I put together almost 30 years ago as a collage and that I am giving back…to the world…where the people who entrusted me with them wanted them to be.

The Kuper Island Residential School walk in Chemainus

the interview

do you think it is a sin to tell

no maybe it isn’t

but they told us never to tell

I don’t think it can be a sin

they aren’t around anymore anyway

but it might be best to just let the thing alone

it’s time to get on don’t you think

some of the elders are saying that it’s best left alone

life is hard enough just dealing with what happens today

sometimes I wonder why it is so hard

nothing seems to make sense to me

it’s hard for the kids

I love them so much

I don’t know how to tell them…..or show them

I’ve never tucked them into bed…..or read them a bedtime story

O well

it’s best left alone don’t you think

I think it was hard for mom to send me there

but I don’t know

we never talked about it

she’s gone now

I remember my grandmother

she cried when they came and took me

quietly….but I knew she was crying

I know she didn’t want me to go

she said she couldn’t stop them

and maybe it would be best

she thought it might be good for me to learn English

I was so scared

I was only six

I hadn’t been off the reserve much

I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me

they talked so fast

I couldn’t even pick up the little bit of English that I knew

there were a few of us

I remember George

he was a bit older than me

he helped me out with the English

but he was scared too

the boat ride over to the island was the worst

I didn’t know where I was

I knew that my parents would never be able to find me

my cousin was there

I thought I could find her

she would help me

but I never saw the girls much

she would smile at me and wave

but I lived with the boys

they beat me up a lot

they said I was a sissie because I wanted my cousin

but I didn’t stay a sissie long

I had more trouble learning English that some of the boys

it seemed that I was always hungry

hungry and mad

there was one brother that used to hit me

he made me sit in the closet all day

I didn’t know how to say that I had to go to the bathroom

so I wet my pants

I sat in the dark closet all day

he forgot me and I fell asleep

he got me out in the morning

I was really afraid of the dark

I guess I still am

you know I sleep with all the lights on

it was that same brother that used to come into our room at night

I used to see him take the other boys away

one by one

I didn’t know what he was doing

until one night he took me away

then I knew

the boys didn’t talk to each other about it

we still don’t

I missed my grandmother

I could smell her when I went to bed

I saw her a couple of times

during the summer before we went berry picking

I told her that they weren’t nice to me out there

I didn’t tell her what they did to me

she used to just hold me

it didn’t make sense

I don’t think it made sense to her either

I always remember her

she died when I was nine

I used to look after some of the boys in the infirmary

one boy from Sooke got really sick one year

they wrapped towels around his neck

I had to bring him food but he couldn’t eat

it was T.B.

I remember them finally getting a doctor over to see him

the doctor got really mad

they took the boy over to the hospital in Chemainus

he made it

but he never came back to school

some of the boys tried to tell them

they tried to get the place changed

mostly it just ended up in a fight

I guess we learned they were in charge

they whipped some of the boys

we were all supposed to be quiet so we could hear them cry

one boy wouldn’t cry

we heard him get whipped and whipped

the brother was swearing at him

he said that if he would just cry then it would stop

but he wouldn’t cry

some were really strong

the only thing to do was run away

I tried

I went to the village and tried to get on a fish boat

they brought me back

others tried to escape

escape….it’s funny isn’t it

but that’s it

we were trying to escape

the island was like Alcatraz….no way out….no way off

others tried to escape on logs

or in canoes

some made it

some didn’t

I remember when there was a bigdance at Kuper

the people would come over on their boats

they would walk right past the school to get to the bighouse

we would look out the window and watch them

sometimes we would see our family

when I got older I didn’t want to see them

they didn’t know me anymore

I didn’t know them either

when I went home for the summer I didn’t fit

they had got on with their lives

I didn’t know how to get on with mine

Hate

I guess I hated most things

I hated the school

I hated the food

the brothers

the teachers

the beds….used to wet mine all the time

the bigger boys

I hated talking Indian

I hated not being able to talk English properly

I hated being Indian

it didn’t make sense

they said everything that was Indian was evil

everything that was Indian you were supposed to change

I hated being Indian

I hated white people

I guess mostly I just hated myself

I started doing some of the things I hated most

it didn’t make me feel good

but I can’t remember ever really feeling good

I had nothing to lose

no one was there for me….except me

I was about fifteen when I finally got out of there

I didn’t live at home long after

I pretty much just slept wherever I found myself

I started drinking real bad

I was real bad

I knew one thing and that was that I would never

let no white man tell me what to do

I wasn’t going to let no one tell me what to do

but I didn’t know what to do

you know I have never gone to look for a job

I’ve worked on the reserve sometimes

but I’ve never looked for a job

no I’ve always just looked after myself here

it’s probably best

I can’t control myself when I get mad

I don’t let anyone tell me what to do

no one pushes me around

anyway….I never went back to school after Kuper

I guess I learned to read and write

sort of

but I’d never be able to get one of those office jobs

you ask

why did they send me to that school?

I don’t really know

my mom’s gone now

she was angry when I left so she didn’t really say

I have never known my dad

they separated when I was at school

he’s on the mainland somewhere

I’m not sure where now

he went to Kuper….I’m not sure about mom

I’d like to find out

there is a big empty hole in my life

sometimes I am just empty

it’s like the whole sky with nothing in it

but not even

it’s not even like that

sometimes I spend a whole day and I don’t think about anything

I think I would like to pray

I haven’t gone to church since I left the school

no….I did once

the priest said mass in Indian

I couldn’t even understand what he said

it doesn’t make sense does it

they changed the rules

now the priest can talk Indian better than me

God doesn’t make sense

at school we prayed all day

beforebreakfast at breakfast afterbreakfast beforelunchatlunch….

like that

but all I prayed for was to go home

God never listened

they told me there were devils at home

I never had a home after

I can’t pray to God anymore

I just go out in the woods and sit

I’ve told you what I remember

I think I don’t remember most of it

it’s part of the emptiness

it’s part of what doesn’t make sense

I’m still afraid….I’m afraid to remember

I’ve told what I remember

it hurts but sometimes I don’t know why

everyone has their stuff to deal with

I don’t want to blame them for the way I am

some people say they had a good time out at Kuper

some say it was better than home

some remember good people out there

there was one brother

he used to coach our soccer team

we were really good

we would go to Chemainus to play

sometimes we would travel

I was a good soccer player

yea….now that I remember I had a good time playing soccer

that brother really stuck with us

but….I don’t know

I can’t make sense out of it

why did they take away who I am

why doesn’t what they told me make sense

it’s like I’m not anyone

I’ve stopped drinking now

the wife left me

it is too late for that

she never knew who I was

I don’t either so I understand

you know George who I was telling you about

he hung himself when we got out

a bunch of guys have done that you know

I sometimes don’t know why I never did

I don’t think I will now

I’ve got a grandson

he’s learning Indian language at school

I never wanted my kids to know it

maybe he will

I hope sometime in his life he will see me well

maybe not completely healed but well

I hope he can be well in his life

maybe it is time to talk about it

memories keep coming into my mind

things that I have completely forgotten

I’m going to need someone to help

don’t leave yet

I have an overwhelming sense of grief

I need to cry

3 thoughts on “Kuper Island: A Return to the Healing Circle

  1. Thank you.
    Some of the print here is overlapping, so it is illegible. A technical glitch?

  2. Dear Sylvia, waking up this morning at Saturna Lodge, this is the first thing I read. Quite stunning! And while it would certainly have been good to put this writing out at any time in the years since written, it is tremendously valuable in this moment. Thank you! I shared it with my sister Paula- she has been close with Peter Campbell for decades and, as it happens, years ago her family stayed in the home of Christine Welsh on Saltspring Island. Today John is doing some deep cleaning on the stove…

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