A sea of orange will flow down Dollarton Highway on Sept. 30 as members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation community, and family members from Musqueam and Squamish nations, take part in a pilgrimage walk to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Starting from the Tsleil-Waututh Reserve admin building at 9 a.m. on Thursday, community members and staff will walk 8.5 kilometres to the site of the former St. Paul’s Residential School, now home to St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School.
Many members taking part will be retracing the steps their relatives took every day to “school.”
The Nation said it will be a time to honour and remember the children who attended St. Paul’s and those who did not return home.
“The purpose of the walk is to create healing for the community and to hold up multiple generations of Tsleil-Waututh Elders and youth,” the Nation said in a release on Sept. 29.
Community members of all ages, including residential and day school survivors and their families, will participate in the pilgrimage walk.
Along the journey, expected to take around two and half hours, the public is invited to create a wall of protection and line up along 3rd Street as well as Cotton Road in front of Park and Tilford.
“You will see the resilience of our people and get a small glimpse of the journey our elders and survivors walked,” Gabriel George, Tsleil-Waututh Nation cultural leader, said in a release.
Elder Stan Thomas, who attended St. Paul’s, is one survivor who will be retracing his steps. He was only six years old when he left his home to attend the institution.
“I have had a flood of memories of this place with the recent news,” he said. “I am the youngest of eight children, and I was the last to go to residential school out of my siblings.”
Ahead of the walk, he said he felt the strength of the community as they prepared to take the journey together to face the day with “one heart and one mind.”
There were 18 residential schools in British Columbia. St. Paul’s, which was located on the 500-block of West Keith Road, next to the Squamish community of Eslhá7an, was the only institution in the Metro Vancouver area. It was opened in 1899 by the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs and was managed and operated by the Roman Catholic Religious Teaching Order, the Sisters of Child Jesus.
Over 2,000 Indigenous children, representing six generations of Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, and other Indigenous communities, were institutionalized there from grades one through eight until it was closed in 1959.
Children in the school were segregated by age group and gender, often not permitted to visit other family members, stripped of their culture, and punished for speaking their native languages or taking part in their cultural traditions.
In August, an investigation into the site was launched by Squamish Nation, in partnership with Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations, to find answers about the children who attended the institution but never made it home.
It wasn't until 1984 that all residential schools in the province were closed down; the last one in Canada didn't close until 1996.
“When we talk about those in residential and day schools, some may think it goes way back in history, but it doesn’t,” Tsleil-Waututh Nation Chief Jen Thomas said in a release.
“It goes back to one generation in my family. My dad went to St. Paul’s Indian Residential School. I’m grateful he survived. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here today… I am grateful for the work that has yet to be done.”
George called on the wider community to respect “the healing journey that we will walk together for our people.”
“We also ask that you take this time to embrace not only the Tsleil-Waututh truth, but the truth of Indigenous communities across Canada,” he said.
“This is not history, this is the legacy of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous people that spanned hundreds of years up until 1996, the effects of which we see today.
“We ask that you reflect and commit to taking some form of action towards Reconciliation. Be a part of moving this country meaningfully from a dark past to a bright future.”
The walk begins at the Tsleil-Waututh reserve admin building parking lot at 3178 Alder Court, North Vancouver, at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 30.
Rest stations with water and support will be set up along the route and the Integrated First Nations Unit will ensure safety throughout the event. After the walk, there will be a brief ceremony, drumming, and singing at the former St. Paul’s site at 541 West Keith Road, North Vancouver, until 1 p.m.
Elisia Seeber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Shore News