As a former student at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, George Quocksister did everything in his power to make sure none of his 10 children were forced to go.
But three of his daughters will gladly make that trip next week.
Carol Bear, Maria White and Louella Serhan of Campbell River will join other residential school survivors from across coastal B.C. for a healing/cleansing ceremony that will mark the decommissioning of the former school building, which looms over Alert Bay as a stark reminder of a dark period in Canada’s colonial history.
Over the course of the next six weeks, the monolithic, four-storey brick structure built in 1928-29 will be demolished and wiped from the Cormorant Island landscape.
“To me, it will mean a closure to my own childhood,” said Bear. “I’ve heard so many bad things from there, it’s got my head full.”
White and Serhan will travel on a guest bus with survivors and other elders, which departs Comox at 5 a.m. and the health centre in Campbell River at 6 a.m. for the trip to the ferry dock in Port McNeill. From there, the group will be ferried to Alert Bay before returning at 6 p.m. Bear plans to travel one day early and billet with an Alert Bay family.
Hundreds more survivors and guests are expected to attend from across coastal B.C.
St. Michael’s, one of a chain of residential schools constructed by the government and managed by church organizations, had room for 200 live-in students. At that time it was the largest of the government schools under Anglican administration.
It drew young children from First Nations families across Vancouver Island, the coastal mainland and as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
“The thing too many people forget is that these were children,” said White. “They were confined children. Stolen children.”
Among those children were George Quocksister of the Ahwahoo Tribe and Elizabeth Gordon Glendale of the Danaxda’xw Nation in Knight’s Inlet. They attended at different periods, and had very different experiences at the school.
Originally hidden by her family when agents came to gather children in Knight’s Inlet, Elizabeth was finally sent to St. Michael’s at age 10, after her parents had separated and married different partners. Already versed in English as well as her native Kwak’wala language, she served as translator between school officials and incoming young students before she left the school at age 15.
George Quocksister, who was an orphan when he was enrolled, escaped from St. Michael’s along with his younger brother Louis, the two rowing a small boat from Cormorant Island to Kelsey Bay. He was later discovered and sent back to residential school — this time in Port Alberni.
“The agent told him, ‘Now try to escape,’” said White.
After he did just that, Quocksister was taken before a judge in Campbell River and, still a teen, successfully argued that he could support himself by fishing. It became a lifelong career that helped him and Elizabeth raise six daughters and four sons before Elizabeth’s death in 1981. And they were raised without spending a day in residential school.
“When the Indian agent came, my dad told him if he touched a hair on any of our heads, he would blow him away with his shotgun,” Bear recalls.
“(The agent) never came back,” White added.
Unlike many children who attended the residential schools, the sisters say, their parents were not stripped of their identities.
“They held onto the language and the culture,” said Serhan. “They never forgot.”
While conceived with the idea of fostering the assimilation of aboriginal peoples into “Canadian” culture, the residential school system was exposed for going much further, by eradicating culture through punishment for speaking their native languages or engaging in any cultural rituals. Next Wednesday’s healing ceremony, hosted by the ‘Namgis First Nation, will seek to close this chapter in history.
The decaying hulk of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School looms over Alert Bay on a clear winter day. J.R. Rardon/Campbell River Mirror