Warning: The details in this story may be triggering. Supports are available at the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) at 1-800-721-0066.
Elder James Quatell has been a voice for residential school survivors and an advocate for truth and reconciliation for years now.
But even he felt challenged last May by the announcement that ground-penetrating radar had discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School approximately 200 potential burial sites believed to be those of children attending the school.
“That day that I heard about that, those children, my deal was I was triggered so deep,” Quatell said.
Quatell himself is a survivor of a residential school. When he was 10-years-old, he was whisked away to St. Michaels Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, north of Campbell River.
The school was operated by the Anglican Church of Canada from 1929-1975 and was used to assimilate First Nations children from northern Vancouver Island and the north coast of B.C. into Canadian society. Children were removed from their families and communities to attend the school about which later the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard claims of abuse.
Quatell had never even heard of a residential school when one day in Campbell River a man told him to “get in the car” and he was hauled off to St. Michaels where he stayed for four years.
“I just couldn’t believe how he just said to me ‘get in the car,’ just, ‘get in the car.’ Don’t say goodbye to anybody, don’t pack nothing, get in the car,” Quatell said.
Quatell came back to Campbell River after four years and bottled up those four years tight. He never spoke about it for three decades. He struggled to deal with the experience until 1993 when he participated in a multi-nation Tribal Canoe Journey to Bella Bella on B.C.’s central coast. The flotilla stopped into Alert Bay and it was at that moment, when he felt the most pride in being Aboriginal, that he looked at the St. Michael’s School building which loomed over the beach and vowed to shake off the hold it had over him for 30 years.
“My spirit was pointing at that building – I’m going to deal with you!’” he said.
The schools were built “to kill the Indian in the Indian,” Quatell said. “Today I can 100 per cent say they never succeeded because I’m dealing with and becoming more proud of who I am. More proud of who I am.”
Quatell is active in his Wei Wai Kum culture as well as working with broader Aboriginal cultural groups. He was a host for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when it held hearings in Campbell River in 2012.
Since that powerful moment in Alert Bay, Quatell has stood as a voice for those who went through the residential school experience and his voice has been strengthened by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its final report. Being a voice has become even more poignant with the discovery last year of the remains of more than 200 Aboriginal children in Kamloops and later in other residential school sites across the country. Now Quatell sees himself as not just a voice for his own experience and those of other survivors but also as a voice for those children who never got to speak.
Serving as a cultural support worker, Quatell attended ceremonies in Kamloops associated with the discovery of the missing children and in Port Alberni to honour that community’s own school victims. At those events he experienced a powerful epiphany. Quatell felt that the road to reconciliation went through understanding that although those children were lost, they could be called back home through ceremony and remembrance.
“Those children need to have guidance now,” Quatell said. “I want people to hear those voices of those children saying ‘help me get home. Help me get home,’ you know? ‘I don’t want to be lost any more. I want to go home. I want to go home.’”
By telling their story, and his own, Quatell hopes the broader community can come to an understanding that will bring about the much talked-about reconciliation that everyone seeks.
“It’s like people acknowledging, people accepting that, yeah, that really did happen,” he said. “I want people to have some kind of empathy, empathy and recognition.”
Like he did himself with his own life, Quatell wants everyone to shake off the past and turn the page.
“We all gotta start a new page. How? I don’t know. What’s going to happen? I don’t know. But I know it has to be turned for all of us in order to find some kind of understanding, understanding of why that happened,” Quatell said.