Milestone quietly remembered by leaders and community members
- Kerry Benjoe
Twenty-five years ago, Canada’s last Indian Residential School closed its doors, ending more than a century of operation.
While most people celebrated Canada Day, on the Wapiimoostoosisi First Nation adjacent to the Village of Lebret, there was a different type of gathering.
Dozens of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants gathered in the Whitecalf gymnasium to prepare for the third annual Honouring the Children Walk-a-Thon.
Prior to the start of the 10-kilometre walk, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron had the crowd recite a short Cree prayer.
nîkân kihci-manitow kinâskomitinân miyo kîsikâw mêkwâc (first, Creator, we thank you. It’s a good day right now.)
Cameron said residential schools nearly destroyed First Nation language and culture, which is why it’s important to speak the language especially now.
The Indian Residential School located in Lebret began operating in September of 1884 and on June 30, 1998, the last child left the building for good.
During its 114 years of operation, it was known by the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School, the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School, St. Paul’s High School and Whitecalf Collegiate.
In the final years, the Star Blanket Cree Nation took over the administration of the school.
Sonia Pete from Little Pine First Nation was there in 1998.
She remembers how surreal it felt on the last day.
“We were like, ‘Wow, this is it. This is the end of this school.’ ” said Pete. “I caught a ride home with my friend from Red Pheasant, and we were one of the last ones to leave the school. We were walking around, and were like, ‘Wow, you know, this is the last time we’re probably gonna be here, all the kids.’ ”
Although her experience was different from previous generations, she acknowledges her place in history.
“It’s something that I hold dear to my heart,” said Pete. “I can say, ‘Yes. I went to residential school.’ ”
It was a unique experience, and for her, she appreciates the many lifelong friends she made while there.
“When I would get lonesome, I just had to go up to the second floor and there was my dad’s graduation picture in the hallway, and my uncle and my sister,” said Pete. “So, it almost felt as though it was a part of our family because we all went there.”
She said there was an overall sadness felt among students and staff because the school was closing.
“To this day, I still dream of that school,” said Pete. “I can close my eyes and be there. I remember every detail of that school the hallways, the playroom and the big staircases.”
As the last in her family to attend a residential school, she’s now focused on making certain the history of these institutions is not forgotten.
Chief Michael Starr was on council when the school was still open.
“I reflect back on that time all the time,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago when we closed the doors it was a very emotional time.”
Starr said a lot of work went into changing the environment of the school and in the final years of operation positive things were happening.
“At the time we felt it was a good educational system,” he said. “It was the prior years, that’s when all the pain that we’re aware of happened.”
Back in 1998, we didn’t want to close because we wanted to keep it moving forward to educate our young people, said Starr.
“It was probably the Creator’s way of working with us,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it. To help tell us. ‘What ever happened here we need it to come to a rest.’ ”
Although the school was demolished in 2000, the school gymnasium remains and has been repurposed into a community hall.
In 2021, after news of the 215 unmarked graves broke in Kamloops everything changed, he said, people began looking at the old school sites differently.
In January, the preliminary results of the school’s ground-penetrating radar search identified more than 2,000 anomalies along with the jawbone of a small child estimated to be about 125 years old.
Starr said three years ago the walk was initiated by women in the community, but this year it was extra special.
“We are walking in honour of young children who possibly are here, and they didn’t make it home,” said Starr.
This is also about healing, he said.
“In this way we can bring all our people together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous from all nations together to have a good walk,” said Starr.
Chief Cameron was joined by FSIN Vice-Chiefs David Pratt and Dutch Lerat for the early morning walk. He said it was important for FSIN to not only support Starr, but to honour all survivors.
“Basically, why we came here is to help with the healing part,” said Cameron. “Healing is the path to Reconciliation.”
He felt nothing but positive energy before, during and after the walk, which he sees as a good sign.
“I want to focus on the future,” said Cameron. “The little ones (here today) have a solid legacy. A path of healing and wellness and a better life than many of us grew up with. And one day there will be a healing and wellness centre right on these exact grounds and every other residential school site.”
Cameron said the federal government poured millions of dollars into constructing and maintaining the schools, so it should also invest to building healing and wellness centres.
He said one of the best parts of the day was hearing the children’s laughter echo through the old school’s gymnasium.
Nichole Thomson-Railton was one of the first participants to complete the walk and she was glad she did.
She wanted to support the cause and honour the many children who didn’t make it home from residential schools.
Thomson-Railton said her mother and two of her sisters attended residential school in Lebret.
“It’s just really important to me to give back to the community,” she said.
Thomson-Railton was overcome with emotion after completing the walk because she walked for her family members impacted by residential schools.
“I was very honoured to be a part of it,” she said.
The event is also an art fundraiser.
Last year, a mural was painted on the west side of the building.
Sheena Koop, nation builder advocate for Treaty Education Alliance, has been involved with the organizing committee since it started.
As an ally, she sees the walk as an opportunity to bring people together. She invited members of her church to participate, and they did.
“It’s so poignant, you know on July 1st to be wearing orange and following Indigenous leadership and especially those women,” said Koops. “They’re just so, powerful and humble and real. It’s been such an honour.”
She said the community of Star Blanket is so welcoming and kind, so when she was asked to be part of it, she said yes immediately.
Many of the walkers raised money though pledges, which is going to support a local youth art project.