Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Ghosts That Haunt Me: A Reflection on Kamloops Indian Residential School

It’s the ghosts you notice first.

You first arrived here in the mid-nineties, attending a Land Claims research seminar sponsored by the Neskonlith Indian Band and hosted by the Tk’emlups Indian Band.  You weren’t expecting to be taking the seminar in a residential school.  You have mixed feelings about the reclamation of the residential school by the Band to become the seat of their government and home to their museum. 

The seminar was held in what was once the secondary dormitory.  This is a small mercy, as you couldn’t get past the front foyer of the main building before you could feel the unease creep up in the small of your back, running up your spine and causing you to shudder.  This causes your throat to constrict and you have the sense that there was a lot of pain here and you can feel this in a crazy physical reaction that makes you want to vomit and cry and curse all at the same time.

And just like that, you are back out into the sunshine, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.  You’re creeped out, looking at the metal fence outfront with the stylized KIRS with a tee-pee in the centre.

How can the Secwepemc people stand to have this building on their territory?

The Kamloops Indian Residential School building leaves you feeling sick, hurting and angry.  The building is an offensive reminder of a past that is not past, of a policy that still exists with a different name and of a hate that you fear will never go away.

And yet, the Secwepemc keep the building, use it, occupy it and maintain it.

This confounds you, but part of you suspects that it is used as both reclamation of the past, and a reminder that they would not be subdued.  A statement that this building, built to destroy this culture and people is now home to the culture and people.  The walls designed to extinguish are now used to ensure the survival and growth of the people.

You get it, but you wonder how the people handle the ghosts.  They tear at your soul and you were only in the foyer for a minute or two.

You shudder and close your eyes, remembering that this is the school where they sent your Grandfather. 

A few years pass and you are a teacher, straddling that gulf between the colonial world of the education system and your own heritage.  You are attending your first Summer Conference and Facilitator’s Institute for the BC Teachers’ Federation, newly enlisted as a workshop facilitator and tasked with the responsibility of teaching teachers about the history and culture of Aboriginal people, of how to work with our youth and the legacy of residential schools on our youth.

Seeking some escape from the hectic schedule of the conference, you go for a drive and, from the highway, you can see across the river the building.  That building.  Without even realizing it, you find yourself heading in that direction, eventually finding yourself in the deserted parking area.

Wandering around the building (there is no way you are going inside), you see that it is smaller than you remember it being.  You see the evidence of the Secwepemc reclamation: the pow wow grounds below the building, the museum in the secondary dormitory.   What strikes you is the silence.  You aren’t far from the highway and Kamloops thrives right across the river but there is silence here that is both unnerving and comforting.

As if the real world recognizes the sacredness of this place and is determined to let it rest in peace.

Your Grandfather never spoke about the school.  You know he learned to farm and to play the saxophone, but you also know that you never saw him play the saxophone.  You remember that your Mom told you about how she would hear him speaking to his mother in Halq'eméylem, but when she entered the room, they would switch to English.  Every time she entered the room.  You remember that she told you she asked him once to teach her the language but he said no.

He said he didn’t want her to get hurt.

The ghosts flow around you, causing that shuddery feeling.  Time to leave.

A few more years pass and you are back in Kamloops again.  This trip is a strange one for you.  The past couple of years have been both exciting and despairing, fraught with some amazing accomplishments and disastrous failures.  They have left you thinking about how decent a teacher you are and ready to walk away because you are incompetent.  You have wondered if you will ever work again and spoken before hundreds about the need to decolonise the education system.  You have told the story of your modern education and mourned the passing of too many relatives.  You have mingled with politicians and television stars and played the politics game to convince others that what you had to say was important.  You have worried that you were being sucked into a world you are very uncomfortable with.

You are struggling with the knowledge that all the advances made in Aboriginal Education, indeed, Aboriginal rights, seem to be following the consistent theme of one step forward, two steps back.  You are struggling with the knowledge that your battles in this arena have been as much with other Aboriginal people as with non-Native people.  You are currently watching the many advances in Aboriginal education in BC being slowly dismantled, often with the complicity of Aboriginal people, and you are wondering why.

You stand in front of the school, your rental car packed and waiting for you to go home.  You weren’t going to come here this time.  You didn’t want to.  This place was built on hate, whatever it has become now.  This was the place that, while it didn’t necessarily steal the language and culture completely from Grandpa, ensured that your Mom and family and you would never have access to it.  This was a place where children were tortured and killed, where children were starved and punished and told that they didn’t deserve to be.

You’ve never liked going to this place, and you don’t stop by every time you come through Kamloops.  You have to admire what the Secwepemc people of Tk’emlups have done with the place.  They have claimed it and made it their own, using the building that helped destroy generations to rebuild and save the new generations.  And you get it.  Hard decisions were made.  You do not have the language, but your Grandpa survived and persevered.  Your Mom and Dad did their part to instill a sense of honour and justice.  You come here to honour the ghosts and everything that has been lost.  You and your colleagues will continue to strive to transform the system, to make it a better place, but this building is a reminder of why that needs to be done.

You realize that one step forward, two steps back will likely continue for a little while, but you know that you and your colleagues will continue to push forward with that one step, forcing it to be the longer of the strides, to override the fall back you are still forced to endure.  You know that the longer stride will eventually negate the two steps back.  You know this because there are far more voices making noise and educating for change. 

The silence is still a little unnerving, up in front of the school, but the ghosts feel different today.
"Acknowledging the past is the only way to allow us to move forward with dignity."
... Nathalie Des Rosiers President, Law Commission of Canada, August 15, 2001


  1. "Your Grandfather never spoke about the school. You know he learned to farm and to play the saxophone, but you also know that you never saw him play the saxophone." - chills.

    I hate the school. I've only been in once and avoiding looking at it and going near it when I'm in Kamloopa. I parked outside of it once and tried to understand. I've also turned down every opportunity to take a field trip there because maybe I don't want to understand. I can't explain it.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Robert, in no way am I going to attempt to feel what it is to be in your shoes but this post is a must read for any and every person that cares about education and society in general. Your words make me feel like I am standing there with you. I have chills so I cannot imagine what is inside you and far too many others.

    I realize this must be difficult to share but please known that posts like these cause me to further learn the ongoing impacts of these brutal and inhumane places.

    Thanks for helping others to gain more understanding. I still have so much to learn.

  3. I have tears in my eyes as I read your post. Your writing has me standing outside the building with you, sensing the ghosts of the past. Thank you so much for sharing your heart.

  4. Wow. Powerful post. This one gets tucked inside my heart. I need to think on it and carry it a while to see what role it will play as I teach my students in the 21st Century, and live with my family and friends. A first person glimpse that touches so many places inside my soul. Thank you.

  5. Wow. A vividly rendered expression of so many of the layers of confusion and pain in this aspect of Canadian history as it influences the present. Encountering and inhabiting the residential school space does provide a haunting sense of justice.

    "You get it, but you wonder how the people handle the ghosts."

    And I think the ghosts of residential schools flow around every Canadian, whether they realize it or not. But the way citizens on either side of this disgraceful period of our history (including its continuing effect on so much of the country) will be able to move 'beyond' it (if such a thing can be imagined) with dignity is to explore our reactions and perspectives in encountering the stories, talking to the witnesses and victims, and reclaiming the spaces for the causes of healing, and future good.

    Thank you so much for lending your powerful voice to such a necessary conversation that is not nearly as well or frequently articulated as it could be if we intend to improve things for Canada and Canadians.

  6. A powerful and well articulated expression of the struggle to reclaim the structures of oppression. I am just beginning to research my masters thesis which specifically is looking at the re-use of the structures of the IRS and how that has affected individuals ability to reclaim their past and I am intending to case study the Kamloops school because it provides such a poignant example. I would love to discuss the issue in greater depth with you if possible.

    1. Thank you for your interest in the school and its legacy. I would be happy to speak with you, although I am sure there are many who are better suited as well. Please accept my apologies for not responding right away, I have been very busy.

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