Kuper Island: A Return to the Healing Circle

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

Welcome to our Saturna House

Sometime in the morning of April 8, 2021 after a few weeks of negotiations we received a call from Caroline, our lawyer, to tell us that Tex and I, along with our partners Elizabeth May and John Kidder were the owners of the Saturna Lodge located on Saturna Island, one of the Southern Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea.

It was only a few weeks before, that the four of us had decided to look into purchasing a place together. None of us were sure what that would look like but once we visited the Lodge we knew that we had found our home. The news that our hastily made plans were now a reality felt like pure possibility. Suddenly there were five of us in the mix, two couples and a grand old lady perched on a gracefully tiered hillside overlooking the calm, sparkling Boot Cove.

First the house would become our home— Elizabeth and John wanted to live there full time; Tex and I, part time. Almost immediately we faced our first challenge. They moved in lock, stock and barrel out of their apartment in Sidney, but the previous owners had left everything from dish towels (some still dirty) and bedroom furniture to a loaded pantry with stuff like a dozen or so bottles of HP sauce, half eaten boxes of Stoned Wheat Thins and jars of peanut butter in the fridge. Our first tasks were to clean, expunge and make space.

Colin Kwok, an architect and friend from Vancouver, came with Joyce, his wife, to get to know our fifth partner and advise us on adaptations we can make so the five of us can live together peacefully.

Never before have I felt more reverence towards a house and a place. Never before have I had such an immediately wonderful relationship with a house and felt such a deep responsibility to enhance and protect her, knowing she will do the same for me.

It’s been only 3 months so we are still settling in to all these relationships. It’s been a long time since any of us have had roommates but we are excited about in our new experience of collaboration, sharing and adventure.

One thing all five of us agree on is that we want many of you to come and visit and share the peace and the beauty. It’ll take time but stay tuned.

The bench welcomes you at the front door

Reravelling Canada

I want to be part of reravelling Canada. It can be a thing. The Urban Dictionary says reravel means to put something back together that has become unravelled. Wool workers get it. We have all reravelled balls of wool that have become a jumble. It’s not easy. It takes time. But if you don’t do it the whole thing is useless and you have to throw it away. I think it’s a good time to discover ways to reravel our country.

Unravelling Canada, my travel book about our 2015 knitting road trip, was meant to be a mental revisit of the country I was struggling to come to peace with. The book looks through the lens of knitters from coast to coast and is a gentle and somewhat off-beat analysis of Canada. During the time the book was floating in the publishing never neverland waiting to find a home, Canada, and indeed the world, has become truly unravelled.

In this country it might be said that the public unravelling began with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Idle no More. Although we know the unsettling of Canada has been going on for generations, the public’s consciousness has only been sparked for the past dozen years or so. Since then Canada’s comfortable space has been rattled. The recent convergence of social justice movements has been ramping up public pressure and our country is not fairing well.

International movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too and, of course, the COVID 19 pandemic have rearranged deeply held assumptions about race, gender and our collective health. In Canada, the report on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls and the discovery of the 215 graves from the Kamloops Residential School and hundreds more across the country have “shocked” even people who haven’t been listening. Closer to home, the “In Plain Sight” report on systemic racism in BC’s healthcare system have given us details, the real stories we can’t ignore. These are lessons we can’t forget.

We are grieving the loss of old growth and worried about whether we’ll remove the fish farms in time to give wild salmon a chance of survival. We have a deep disturbing anxiety about the outcomes of continued fracking and that Site C Damn is going ahead in spite of all our collective good sense.

And, as if we haven’t been rattled enough, the recent weather disaster, the hundreds of British Columbians who died in the heat wave, the loss of the tiny village of Lytton and the surrounding First Nations communities, reminds us of the climate crisis, the existential threat to our very survival.

I don’t know about you but I am unravelled. I am also a grandmother and I know that I don’t have the luxury of remaining unravelled for too long. My narrative must change to rallying the masses and building strategies and creating hope. I’m not willing to wait until the last drop of injustice has been eradicated before I call for another narrative, not to replace the unravelling but to go side-by-side.

As we continue to unearth the real stories of our past and our present and figure out our real identity I’m thinking we can also get serious about reravelling ourselves and our country. I’m not interested in wrapping it up again into a ball with the nasties buried in the middle. I’m not talking about shutting down the ravelling…there is so so so much more to do. The pressure needs to continue. I’m saying we need a new paradigm as well and new way to become whole and well and compassionate and real.

I don’t have a tidy wrap up for this blog because we have to build the new paradigm together–the reravelling–and so far we don’t know how to do that. Perhaps we need to wait and do more unravelling first. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure we can do both at the same time. The grandmother in me says pull ourselves together. The children need hope.

Grown-ups

Canada has been stuck in perpetual adolescence…unprepared to face the next step…growing up. I hope these painful days will be seen as a ritual moment when we were faced with our country’s true self and when we began to grow ourselves up.

Remember when you were a kid and you heard your parents whispering in the other room. You couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying. If they caught you listening they shushed you away and said that they talking about things that weren’t meant for kids’ ears.  

Remember the first time you heard your parents swear and then you realized that they probably swore all the time, just not when you were around.

Remember when you thought your parents, and especially your grandparents, were perfect and then found out your grandfather was an alcoholic and your grandmother still met up with her old boyfriend.

That’s us Canadians. We are grown-ups now. We are old enough to hear grown-up stories—the nasty ones everyone knew but didn’t want to talk about. We are old enough to know that our ancestors weren’t always the nice people we thought they were.

Hopefully now we will stop whispering. Hopefully we will believe the stories that are being told, especially about Canada’s particular racism against First Nations people.

Nothing has changed except our perception. But with that there is hope. Now we are coming face to face with the racism of our past we are better able to acknowledge the racism of our present and, with effort and determination, with everyone working together, perhaps prevent racism in our future.

That’s the challenge, Canadians…for all of us.

The zealot’s daughter

Don Snobelen

When I was in grade eleven there was the it-guy in grade twelve—handsome, athletic, surrounded by it-girls and other it-guys. I didn’t know him and he never gave me as much as a glance. One day, in a semi empty hall he walked up to me and stopped, “Are you Sylvia?” I don’t remember his name or even exactly what he looked like, but I can still hear “Sylvia”. I’m surprised that I heard anything over the buzz in my ears. Maybe I didn’t hear it as much as I felt it in my knees and the pit of my stomach.

I’m sure I mumbled some sort of acknowledgement although I don’t remember.

“I met your dad last night. He picked me up at Elk Lake and drove me all the way home to Lands End.”

He smiled with a look that I’d seen before in other people who had encountered my father.

“What a great guy. He went so far out of his way to give me a ride,” pause, “he’s,” pause, “interesting.”

What could I say? The buzz turned to numb.

The it-guy was right. We lived only minutes from Elk Lake and the trip to Lands End gave my father at least half an hour with his captive audience.

It’s true my Father was a great guy. He had a handsome, loving, charming smile. He genuinely liked people. He was generous and gregarious. He was unpretentious and kind. He thought he was funny and told all the same eye-rolling, dad jokes that other dads told in those days. And my father believed in his daughters. He told us that we could do anything his sons could do and probably better. That was a gift most girls did not receive from their fathers in the 1950s and 60s.

But I knew that the it-guy didn’t mean my father was interesting. He thought he was interesting and that was different.

When he walked away I was mortified (a word my mother used when referring to my father’s behaviour).

My father was a zealot. He was an uncompromising believer, a preacher, a prophet and perhaps the most enthusiastic evangelist you could ever encounter. The Bible was his book, the promises to Abraham, Issac and Jacob were his mission statement and the return of Jesus to rule over a 1000-year earthly kingdom was his vision and his endgame.

I knew father could fill the it-guy in on that part in about 15 minutes. He had another 15 minutes to cover the evils of ‘the world’, to convince him that we were living in the ‘time of the end’ and persuade him to start reading the Bible soon so he didn’t miss out on the opportunity to be saved.

I’m sure the it-guy has told this story as well—the night a guy picked him up and gave him a ride all the way home so that he could preach to him. He might say that the guy was crazy. But I doubt it. He probably says the same thing he said to me “What a great guy.”

Because my father was a great guy. When he died, in his late 80s, hundreds of people attended his funeral. Kids he had hired in our greenhouses. Paper boys who were now fathers themselves. Store clerks. Customers. Neighbours. Our school friends. His mechanic, nurses and anyone he had encountered. And most of them would have had a similar story to the it-guy.

There are many things about being the zealot’s daughter that don’t go away. It’s okay to be different. I mean really different and not the cool sort of different. It’s okay to believe weird things that other people don’t believe in. It’s okay to trust people and let them into your life without living in fear. It’s okay to truly dance to your own drummer and to sing like nobody is listening. Father was not even like the others in his very, very conservative church…he was as different from them as he was from the people he met in ‘the world’. And that’s okay.

And it’s better than okay to really love, to really be generous, to really not be burdened by popular opinion, to really smile and to really like people. Thanks dad for it all.

Human beings

Ron Martin and his sister Louise

You ask me for a solution—for some advice that will help the problem of racism towards me? Towards Indigenous people? That’s easy. I am not an Indian. I am not an Indigenous person. I am not a person with a disability. I am Koous. I am a human being. I am a human being in exactly the same way you are a human being. If people saw me as a human being—if people treated me like a human being I would receive the help and respectful care I need.

(Ron Martin, Mukwila, Tla o qui aht First Nation)

Ron Martin is a friend of mine. In our earlier lives we both married into the same family so we became relatives, of a sort. In the 1990s we worked together in the field of First Nations administration and travelled throughout the province. I heard Ron’s stories about being Nuu chah nulth and from Tla o qui aht. His family’s traditional lands include the world famous Long Beach near Tofino. We spent time on the beach imagining the life before. He told me the names of his ancestors going back more than 20 generations (reciting not reading their names—astounding).

Ten years ago Ron had a stroke. We no longer work together, but Ron was and still is one of my teachers. I asked him the other day if I could share this quote of what he told a class of nurses from UVIC while we were doing a workshop with them in the late 90s. His answer was, “Of course yes.”

During the discussion the students asked Ron if he could point to one thing that gets in the way of improving relations between Indigenous people and other Canadians. His answer was:

“We don’t know each other.”

There are a myriad of reasons why—all are understandable. That was 25 years ago. Hopefully we are getting to know each other better today.

I am not sure. Are we really listening to each other? Is it a two-way conversation? Are the minds and hearts open on both sides? Are we moving closer together or further apart?

But I am hopeful. My sense is that we will not move ahead in a good way, as a country, until we get do get to know each other and perhaps we are starting on that journey.

There’s a lot of “getting real” happening. Canada’s real history is becoming clearer. Canadian’s are getting over the façade of being the “good-guys” and getting real about the nasty side of our nature and our relationship with Indigenous people. Indigenous people are taking their place and thriving in every sector of society. They are thrivers, not just survivors—that’s real. White people (or whatever we call everyone who is not Indigenous) are not all bad, or all guilty, or all anything—that’s real. None of us have all the answers—that’s also real. We all need each other and to be compassionate with each other—that’s the most real of all.

Interviews

Thank you thank you Christopher Walker/Cabinboy knits for this interview

The book is out. The interviews are coming in. Why did you take the tour? Why did you write the book? What surprised you? What do you know now that you didn’t know before? First we took went on a road trip. Then I wrote the book. And now…there’s a whole other level of reflection.

            To start…a word about the publisher; Douglas & McIntyre does a great job of promotions. I am surprised at how much interest they have gathered—how many interviews they’ve scheduled. I had never imagined that a knitting road trip book would be on the BC best sellers’ list for the first two weeks it is out.

            My next surprise? As I’ve said before, a lot of people are interested in knitting…millions of them. But I am beginning to think that everyone has someone who loves to knit—someone who they want to buy the book for. Or perhaps I am right when I facetiously say that there are only two kinds of people in the world—people who knit and people who wish they could knit.

            And then there’s the roadtrippers. The book is only partly about knitting. It’s equally or even more about the road trip. And who, especially during COVID, doesn’t wish they could go on a road trip?

             Finally a word about the interviewers. I have been interviewed many times on various topics. I always hope for the best—that the interviewer is interested and somewhat knowledgeable—that he or she has done some research on the topic. What do I know now that I didn’t know before? There are a lot of interviewers who are fascinated by the idea of a knitting road trip and if they are any indication of the general interest then it’s no wonder this book is doing much better than I had ever expected.