When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final 3,231-page report Dec. 15 in Ottawa, We Wai Kai Elder James Quatell welcomed the announcement — not as the end of a six-year process, but as the beginning of a new era of action.
Quatell has the “truth” part of the Truth and Reconciliation down — he knows his truth, and he shares it with people who ask. He is a product of the residential school system, having been taken away from his family in Campbell River when he was 10. He spent four years at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay and returned at the age of 14, feeling like a stranger in his community and feeling ashamed of his First Nations culture.
But now, Quatell is eager to work on the “reconciliation” aspect — and he feels that this can be done by continuing to share his story and his truth.
Quatell left St. Michael’s in 1962, but it took him until 1994 to start sharing his story. He remembers that this came as a result of his community. The We Wai Kai nation built its own canoe here and paddled to Bella Bella. After leaving Campbell River, their first stop heading north was Alert Bay, and although Quatell had been there many times since 1962, this was the first time he visited the community in the band’s traditional canoe.
As they pulled in, they were invited onto the beach, and Quatell remembers this as one of his proudest moments. That pride quickly faded when he saw the St. Michael’s building right behind the beach where the ceremony took place.
This moment ended up being the beginning of Quatell dealing with his past.
“I was sitting in our canoe, there was like a surge that started from the bottom of my feet and worked all the way up my body, I could feel it, and it pushed my spirit up to that building again,” he said. “My inner voice was pointing at that building: ‘I’m going to deal with you; you’re not going to have that power over me no more.’”
The next day, when they continued their journey, Quatell remembers sitting in the galley of a big seiner and one of the men asked him what he was thinking about. Quatell said he was thinking about where he would be if he was at home, which would be at a meeting. When the man asked Quatell what he did at the meetings, he said they sit around a table and talk.
“He said ‘well, what’s wrong with here?’ so we had a meeting on our boat and talked,” recalled Quatell. “That was the first time I ever told my story and started talking about the residential school. And sitting across from me in the galley was this other person, and as I continued to talk about my story, I could see tears rolling down his cheeks. After I finished telling my story, he said ‘you just told my story.’ And I thought ‘wow.’ If you can add that to any kind of reconciliation, that would be it, to have somebody else see and feel the way you felt and know that you helped him move from where he was.”
The telling of — and listening to — stories is key for Quatell, who gets invited to a lot of treatment centres as an Elder these days and spends a lot of time talking to people there and listening to their stories.
The TRC, an element of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, offered individuals directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the residential school system a chance to share their stories. This past June, the commission released an executive summary in Ottawa that presented 94 calls to action to try to repair the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation. Quatell, who was in Ottawa for the June event, doesn’t want the voice of residential school survivors to be spoken once but be silent now that the TRC final report has been released.
“That’s why I say today ‘it’s not over; it’s only begun,’” he said. “Now it’s up to us to really work diligently towards reconciliation. What is reconciliation? If you don’t know what it’s about and you think you have no part in it, that’s why I say listen to people who are telling their stories.”
He says many people make comments like “well, it was a long time ago,” “when are you guys going to get over it?” or “what more do you want?” and his reconciliation is dealing with his past but also with how statements and questions like this affect him.
To take action on reconciliation, Quatell is creating opportunities to let his voice and his thoughts be heard.
After Quatell heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say that it should be mandatory that aboriginal history be taught in schools, he contacted School District 72 and said he’s willing to speak to classes. By the time the Christmas holidays began, he had already shared his story with three classes at Carihi Secondary School and two classes at Southgate Middle School.
One place Quatell would like to approach next to share his story is in churches.
“If I can tell my story, I need to do that to have some kind of reconciliation, specifically in that part of my life,” he said. “It’s not about blaming them or shaming them, by no means. My Elders say you don’t do this to shame anybody; you do it to set yourself free. And that’s how it’s done.”
When the TRC came to Campbell River in 2012, Quatell helped MC the hearings and shared his story with the commission – here and in Victoria. Although he now feels that getting a chance to share his story helped him feel free, he remembers being angry at the commission for coming to his community and for wanting him to be involved.
“It was kind of like them saying directly to me ‘it’s time for you to reconcile’ and I would say ‘why should I reconcile something I had no part in?’” he said. “I had to really look at it wholeheartedly and think ‘it did happen, I didn’t want to be part of it; it was a part of when the government implemented that structure to happen to us.’ In many circles, I close with them now, and I say ‘you know what? My name is James Quatell; I’m not a survivor anymore. I’m a voice. I’m a voice for the residential school.’ And that’s where I want to be understood. I was stuck in being a survivor. Now I’m doing the work I need to do and if that falls under reconciliation, so be it.”