The Shuswap Indian Band (SIB) hosted a community vigil and remembrance ceremony last week. The ceremony honoured the 215 children found at the Kamloops Residential School, survivors and products of residential schools.
The ceremony took place in the field next to the band’s administration office. A much larger crowd than anticipated attended, including elders, residential school survivors, and Shuswap staff and members. Akisqnuk First Nation and Métis band members were also there alongside many non-Indigenous people.
Shuswap Councillor Mark Thomas was the master of ceremony. He began by welcoming everyone in attendance before inviting Shuswap Elder Basil Stevens to lead a prayer on behalf of the 215 children, residential school survivors and all those affected by the residential school system.
Shuswap Chief Barb Cote then gave her opening remarks. “I want to speak through what my heart is saying,” she began. “This is a very difficult time. It is time for Canada to do true work of truth and reconciliation.”
Chief Cote ended her opening remarks by reciting a quote from Nobel Prize-winning theologian Albert Schweitzer. “Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now, always.”
Chief Cote then invited residential school survivors or anyone from the community to come up and speak if they wish. The first speaker was SIB member Audrey Eugene. Both of Eugene’s parents are survivors of residential schools. Her mother, Marge, 82, went to the St. Eugene Mission Residential School. Her father, Xavier, 85, went to the St. Mary’s Indian Residential School.
“They tried to beat the Indian out of us, but we’re still here,” Eugene said to the crowd. “Those children could’ve been doctors, lawyers, leaders of our community. Instead, all that wisdom lost.”
Eugene finished by asking everyone to wear orange instead of red and white on Canada day this year. “We are people of this land. Show Canada we never forget these poor souls.”
After Eugene finished speaking, Mark Thomas pointed to a row of Remembrance Chairs leaning against an administration office railing. He invited anyone that may have known someone now gone who went to a residential school to take a chair, unfold it, and let no one sit on it for the duration of the ceremony. There were close to twenty chairs. All were taken.
Two songs led by band member Clarissa Stevens followed. Stevens chose the Woman’s Warrior Song first. “This song is meant to honour all the women survivors and those lost,” she said to the crowd. Along with a choir of singers and drummers, Stevens sang into the microphone. The second song Stevens led was the Shuswap Honour Song.
Following the second song, Thomas initiated a procession toward the memorial. Clarissa Stevens and her parents led the procession. Drummers and residential school survivors immediately following behind. Those with flowers and candles (most of everyone in attendance had candles) followed eventually placing them on the memorial. A sharp wind from the north gusted the entire evening.
Chief Cote concluded the hourlong ceremony with her closing remarks. Before thanking everyone for coming out, she said: “Those candles are going to help bring those children home.”
After the ceremony, I spoke with Audrey Eugene. She said her mother and father were failed from their residential schools. Her mother, because she didn’t ace the school’s catechism test. Her father, because the priest thought Xavier was cheating when in fact he was tutoring his fellow students. “It broke my heart when my mother told me she wished it was her that was found buried rather than those children,” Eugene said as a tear fell from her eye.
James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer