Wei Wai Kum elder James Quatell was a 10-year-old boy when forcibly removed from his family home in Campbell River in 1958 and shipped to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay.
Nobody warned him. Nobody prepared him.
“They just came to the house, picked you up,” said Quatell. “You don’t say goodbye; you don’t take nothing. I didn’t know where the heck they were taking me or where I was going.”
The only memory he has of the day beyond feeling lost and alone was watching water churn off the stern of the ferry to Alert Bay.
So began the next four years of what Quatell refers to as his life of “management.”
He was one of 150,000 aboriginal children that fell prey to the residential school system devised by the Canadian government in 1879 to eliminate the “Indian problem” through assimilation. The last school closed in 1996.
At institutions across the nation, children were isolated from their communities and families, prohibited from speaking their language and many suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse. At age 14, Quatell was unceremoniously returned to Campbell River and he felt as lost and isolated as he had upon leaving it.
Alienated and angry, he spent years retaliating against his family and community.
“I tried to manage the best way I knew how. I was introduced to booze and thought that was the answer at a young age.”
Ultimately, a return to his cultural traditions fuelled his healing journey, which he feels is near complete.
“Now, I wear that past with pride,” said the 65-year-old. “I wear my regalia with pride and I can sing my song with pride.”
Another critical step in Quatell’s healing, and that of many other survivors, took place when St. Michael’s was recently demolished.
Hundreds of survivors, their relatives and supporters gathered in Alert Bay mid-February for a powerful healing ceremony.The ceremony’s message extends beyond aboriginal people to the wider community, said Quatell.
The residential school system has repercussions for the whole Campbell River community, not only area First Nations, he stressed.
Quatell works with a variety of community organizations to increase awareness and promote reconciliation between aboriginal peoples and all Canadians.
He regularly participates in Campbell River’s annual Walk Away From Racism, which is takes place this year on Saturday.
“When I do that walk and we do that together – that’s when I feel a sense of unity,” he said.
“We all need to stand together if we are going to do something and continue to tear [St. Michael’s] apart.”
Walk Away from Racism
The 2015 Walk Away from Racism on Saturday is focusing on the demolition of St. Michael’s residential school as a significant moment for reconciliation with First Nations in the community of Campbell River. Hosted by the Immigrant Welcome Centre and the city, the Walk Away From Racism starts at 11 a.m. at the Community Centre.