St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C. — one of five remaining residential schools in the province — is slated for demolition later this year. This is the first of a three-part February series looking further into the stories of the students, challenges faced by local First Nations in the Comox Valley today, and a special mid-month ceremony at the school to acknowledge the past and ignite hope for the future.
Evelyn Voyageur remembers her mother coming home in tears.
She was nine years old, living on Gilford Island when she was told she had to leave to Alert Bay to attend St. Michael’s Residential School.
“You have to go to the school or you’ll be taken away from us forever, or we’ll go to jail,” she recalls her mother saying.
The next day, she was placed on a water taxi.
Voyageur, who now lives in the Comox Valley, has gone on a healing journey, but says she has absolutely no recollection of the approximately 30-kilometre trip from her home to the school.
“I try to bring it up in my memory, but it must have been so traumatic,” she says. “Ten of us were on that taxi.”
Voyageur does, however, remember all of the six years she attended the school.
“The very fabric of First Nations people is family. I was separated from my brother and my family. What they taught us is to not speak our language, to de-Indianize us.”
While she admits there were some good people at the school, she describes days in the classrooms as emotionally degrading, filled with physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Her brother, whom she saw infrequently at St. Michael’s, ran away because he was starving, and made his way back to Gilford Island in a rowboat.
Unlike many other residential schools, during Christmas, Easter and major holidays, students were able to go home and visit their parents.
Voyageur considers herself very lucky.
At home she was free. Her parents taught her skills such as fishing and berry picking.
“Our parents were always so glad to see us. Our culture was so strong at home. Unfortunately, some other parents went to residential schools, and it was safer for the kids to stay in the school. That was not the case with us, and mom and dad.”
For other students, Voyageur remembers there were no role models. She knows many people who were raised solely in residential schools, and learned everything from what happened both inside and outside the classroom.
When she was 18-and-a-half years old, Voyageur got married, and soon had three children. She began to witness a slight change in the government’s perspectives on residential schools, but knew she wanted to return to school.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a welfare recipient,” she notes.
With the help of family, she went to university to become a registered nurse. As she began working with many former residential school students, she became puzzled by their attitudes.
“I had so many questions — why are there so many problems? Then someone said to me ‘Evelyn, you have to remember, we weren’t raised at home. We were raised by the school.’”
She realized she wanted to do more than be a nurse, and returned to school to receive a masters and a PhD.
She presented a thesis on the loss of identity through colonization, Christianity and oppression.
Through a variety of interviews, she began to learn more about the sexual, physical and emotional abuse suffered by many students.
“I then began to understand my people. I was getting connected and I didn’t judge. I learned they were very traumatized; to this day some are still walking with that.”
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St. Michael’s Residential School was operated by the Anglican Church, from 1929 to 1975. It was the largest school under Anglican administration.
As with many residential schools, girls and boys were separated, with siblings rarely interacting.
According to the Indigenous Foundation at the University of British Columbia, widespread abuse, overcrowding, poor sanitation, severely inadequate food and health care resulted in a shockingly high death toll.
In 1907, government medical inspector P.H. Bryce reported that 24 per cent of previously healthy aboriginal children across Canada were dying in residential schools.
In the late 1930s, the school building became a preventorium with space for 18 tuberculosis patients. The school had a capacity for 200 students; a year before its closing that number dropped to 43.
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While working in Port Hardy, Voyageur sat on a committee to restore the school, with a goal of using the facility as a place to revive their language.
There was hope to turn a negative into a positive, she says, to make it into a language school or a create a theatre for children.
The front was going to be in the shape of a big house, but no money came through, and the committee found the cost to renovate the building was the same as it was to demolish it.
“By that time, I had done my healing, and it was important to not feel threatened. It’s just a building to me — it’s just a school, it can’t hurt us anymore.”
She admits she has come to the understanding the school was not meant to be revived. She doesn’t get upset and accepts there is a reason for everything.
While some members of the community would like to have the building to stay as a physical reminder to show their children and grandchildren and share their stories, others say it’s good that it’s coming down, she adds.
Voyageur, along with other members are planning a ceremony at the school this month to let go of some of the pain and create a means of hope through continued healing and potential for reconciliation — I’tustolagalis: “Rising Up, Together.”
“As one of the elders said, it’s time to let go. Yes, we did go through it, let’s learn to let it go and let’s heal. Life is too short; let’s enjoy what’s on this earth. As long as we hold onto the blaming and unforgiving, we won’t heal.”