This article contains content about residential school institutions that may be triggering.
A project that provides a window into the Secwépemc people’s deep connection to their traditional territory was celebrated against a backdrop of sadness on June 1.
Behind the playground near the Little Mountain fieldhouse in Salmon Arm, a ceremony was held to officially unveil the first Trailhead post installation for the Secwépemc Landmarks Project.
Coming just days after the confirmation of the remains of children at the Kamloops residential school, the celebratory event included emotional tributes to Survivors of residential schools and powerful words about the history of Indigenous people in Canada.
Adams Lake Band Councillor Shelley Witzky has been leading the project with the support of the Secwepemc Lakes Elders Advisory Committee, which includes Elders from all four bands; she and Jacob (Sutra) Brett came up with the initial concept and Libby Chisholm has been project coordinator.
Funded and led by Adams Lake, Neskonlith and Splatsín bands, with additional support from the BC Rural Dividend Program, Heritage BC, the City of Salmon Arm, the Shuswap Trail Alliance, Shuswap Tourism and community in-kind donations, the project was designed to create awareness of Secwépemc traditional territory through a series of landmarks or sculptures at highly visited areas, as well as trailhead posts around the region.
The event marked the completion of the first phase, with close to 100 Trailhead posts created and carved by youth from six classes, four in School District 83 and two from Shihiya and Chief Atahm schools.
Students from Shuswap Middle School (SMS) attended Tuesday’s ceremony and unveiled the first Trailhead post.
The first two sculptures in the region are expected to be installed in the autumn.
Splatsin Elder Ethel Thomas gave the opening prayer and spoke of the need for people to heal themselves. She said she thinks of herself as a beautiful vase that was broken into pieces by her time at the residential school and is now being put back together.
Splatsin Kukpi7 (Chief) Wayne Christian said his given name, which comes to him from his great, great grandfather, is Big Voice Who Speaks the Truth. He spoke with emotion about the words of Ethel Thomas.
“I want to honour Ethel, for having the courage to get up here in front of you at this time of great sorrow and pain, and to let you know, herself as a survivor, what that means. Because you all forget that our survivors were children at one time, like you young people…,” he said to the students present. “They are adults now but they were children when they were put in those institutions.
“They’re not schools. They were actually like prison concentration camps for people who were forced by law to be there.”
Christian spoke of the papal Doctrine of Discovery that portrayed Indigenous people as non-human and the land they inhabited as empty. He said nine years after the creation of Canada in 1867, the racist Indian Act was brought in, which still exists today.
“This is the history of Canada that no one knows, that you see being uncovered now. Those 215 children that are showing themselves to the world. This is Canada. We must change what we’re doing. And this project here is really important, these trail markers…” he said, pointing to recognition that the whole territory is used. Trails are a way to move around, lakes and rivers were the highways.
He thanked Shelley Witzky and the organizers of the project.
“It marks a real important time. These markers – a new path for Canada and for us.”
Christian again gave credit to Elder Ethel Thomas.
“Our Survivors, I honour them,” he said, his voice faltering with emotion. “Because they’ve carried this burden for so long. For decades they’ve carried this burden. And nobody believed them. The truth is here now. Let’s turn that truth into action. To the young people here, when your families are growing up, teach them about what’s going on with our people. Teach them.
“That’s where it starts is in your homes. Schools can help but it starts in the homes.”
Neskonlith knowledge keeper Louis Thomas and Splatsin Elder Julianna Alexander also spoke. Thomas said the markers will tell stories to children years from now, just as everyone has stories to tell.
“The trees have stories to tell, the water has stories to tell, if you only listen to them.”
Alexander said she and her sisters are all survivors of the residential school.
“It’s all oral, it’s not written in the books. That’s why you don’t know about it. We’re the ones that are carrying those stories and the real truth of what it’s like to live the lifestyle that we had. And it’s been really, really difficult,” she said.
Other speakers included Neskonlith Councillor Brad Arnouse, who hosted the meeting; Anne Tenning, District Principal of Indigenous Education; Jen Bellhouse, executive director with the Shuswap Trail Alliance; Stephanie Goodey with Shuswap Tourism; and North Okanagan-Shuswap MP Mel Arnold.
Tenning thanked the students for their work in concert with the Indigenous communities. “This work speaks to the true spirit of reconciliation. It acknowledges the lands of Secwepemcúĺecw and, in a genuine way, through the teachings of our elders and knowledge keepers, and with the work of our young people, reminds all sorts of people who pass through these lands, the history here.”