Being a residential school survivor has obviously heavily impacted Raymond Tony Charlie’s life, but he’s still enduring hardships today.
Unbeknownst to many, Charlie, 71, is still not back in his home after being flooded out on Tsussie Road near the junction of Chemainus and Crofton Roads during the torrential rains of Nov. 15 last year.
And, yet, the author of the book In The Shadow of the Red Brick Building still manages to smile frequently and has the endearing qualities that make him a much-loved person with those who know him well and leave an immediate impression on those he meets for the first time. Many consider it remarkable he’s able to do that in the face of so much adversity.
“I’ve always been gentle,” said Charlie during a sit-down interview on a sunny day at the site of the former Quw’utsun’ Cultural and Conference Centre in Duncan along the banks of the Cowichan River. “It’s always been my style my whole life.”
“He’s just such a dear, dear friend of mine and I respect and admire him very much,” said Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) professor Nadine Cruickshanks, who assisted Charlie with the editing and processes of getting his book published. “I just wanted to support him in any way I could.”
Cruickshanks can envision a younger Charlie, with his same good-natured qualities and innocence before being subjected to abuse in the residential school system.
“When I sit with Raymond Charlie, I see the smile and twinkle in the eye of that little boy who was full of love and humble curiosity,” she said. “With all that he has gone through – and all of the circumstances that he has faced that have attempted to rip his spirit apart – I always see the smile in that little boy, along with the stolen childhood. Raymond preserved – against all odds – a resilient determination to love and to be loved. It’s all really impactful.”
As the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is marked Friday, Sept. 30, Charlie stands out as a kind of poster boy for the honouring of survivors, their families and communities and the memorializing of the children lost to the residential school system.
Charlie’s mother was Penelakut, but he also has roots with Cowichan Tribes and family connections with the Malahat First Nation and Brentwood Bay. He began the 1964 school year as one of the so-called villagers at the Kuper Island Residential School on the land now known as Penelakut Island, became a boarder there in 1967 and was transferred to the St. Mary’s Residential School in Mission City at the end of the 1968 school year.
The sequence of abuse is documented in his book.
“Each chapter is an experience I had to deal with as a residential school survivor,” Charlie said. “I found physical abuse and abuse from getting dental work without freezing and stuff.”
The process of writing a book actually goes back to 2013 when he was receiving counselling services for survivors. From sessions with Frank Groenewold, he suggested Charlie write down what he wanted to talk about.
“Every week, I would write it down and bring it over to him,” said Charlie. “After a year and a half, he said we healed a young boy who was sexually abused and he said you’ve come a long way.”
Groenewold ran the idea of writing a book past Charlie at that point.
“I said, ‘me? I’m such a poor writer,’” recalled Charlie.
“I started writing, over seven years of writing. One of my dear friends, Kelly Bannister, she said, ‘Ray, can you send me what you’ve got so far?’ My mind at the time was all over the place. I didn’t think there was any sense to what I wrote at all.”
But once the right people were all aligned, including Bannister, Cruickshanks, Askew Creek Publishing’s Warren Goulding and Connie Manning and others, the right steps were taken to make the book a reality and a GoFundMe campaign raised the necessary funds.
Hardly a day goes by now when Charlie isn’t on a public speaking engagement, a Zoom meeting or conducting media interviews. He also had a book launch at the Duncan campus of Vancouver Island University on Monday, Sept. 26. More on that session will be published next week.
Charlie has even become something of a Tik Tok sensation.
“I was quite surprised,” he said. “I thought one day I’m going to try it. I talked about being a residential school survivor. I was sitting with my son and he said, ‘dad, you’ve got a lot of views on your Tik Tok.’”
He has 15,000 people following him, in fact, and more than 100,000 views and counting.
Charlie is making it a mission to continue as a determined spokesman, as much for others who haven’t been provided the opportunity for their own voices to be heard.
“I feel it’s my responsibility as a survivor so it will never happen again,” he offered. “Sexual abuse can happen in many different ways. It’s important people realize they don’t have to accept their situations. They have to get help and become strong and heal.
“The big thing is I hope we will all heal and move towards healing. There’s still a lot of trauma and pain out in our communities yet.”
Charlie’s personal pain and that of his family and other survivors stays with him.
“We live with it for the rest of our lives,” he said. “It’s always in our minds. It’s always in our hearts. It’s very tough not to think about it some days. I felt dirty and I felt I shouldn’t be here.”
Charlie has always been grateful for the loving support of his wife Lorraine and sons Tony, Adrian and Kyle.
Ray and Lorraine are still dealing with another test of resilience awaiting a return to their home bordering on a year ago following last November’s flood. They lived at the Best Western Plus Chemainus Inn for three months before moving to the Thunderbird Motel in Duncan where they’re still residing.
Theirs is the only home on Tsussie that hasn’t be reoccupied due to foundation issues. “I’m hoping they can resolve that one,” said Charlie.
“It’s very, very hard since I can’t cook any traditional food. I have no stove or anything to cook on. It gets costly to eat out all the time.”
Charlie’s resilience and fortitude to overcome challenges truly knows no bounds.