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Last Updated: 08/19/2005
A Ceremony of Forgiveness
Am Johal

In the small island community of Alert Bay near northern Vancouver Island, hundreds of residential school survivors from St. Michael's Residential School stood on the idyllic shoreline near the U'mista Cultural Centre around ten in the morning on Friday.  It was misty as the fog rolled in and perched itself on the calm water. 


It was an enchanting setting as canoes carrying some of their former classmates arrived.  As they came closer, one of the chiefs stood up from the canoe and asked for permission to come ashore.  Chief Bill Cranmer from the Namgis First Nation welcomed them in.


They paddled the canoe backwards and brought the rear of the canoe in as a gesture of friendship, rather than one of aggression had they simply rowed in from the front.


In an age when ceremony is largely dead, they brought blankets to share.


St. Michael’s Residential School was in operation from 1929 to 1975.  Over the weekend, more than 250 First Nations from all over British Columbia representing over 18 bands were expected to attend the healing ceremony. 


As they made their way to the Big House, a traditional Kwakwaka'wakw structure which serves as the site of the world’s tallest totem pole, a fire roared in the middle of the room making it smoky.  The Big House which had burned down years earlier still had the distinctive support beams made of totem poles of wild women, bears and thunderbirds. 


The parallel support beam holding up the Big House was an immaculate Sisuitl, a Zen-like symbol of balance with two separate serpent-like flickering tongues.  The central portion was a face with human features.  Here they say that its glare can cause a man to die by turning them to stone and that one must have balance in one's life in order to stare the Sisuitl in the eye and live to tell the story.  It made for a powerful backdrop as the ceremony began.


"We used to be beaten for speaking our own language.  We were removed from our own communities...we need to remove the trauma, so we can develop in the way we want to," said Chief Cranmer as he addressed the former students.  "We need to move forward and we hope you share with us the notion that this shouldn't have happened to us or our children.  The future belongs to us.  We need to rebuild our history."


Some had attended the school in the 1940's and shared memories of being taken from their villages by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Some remembered coming in on a Union steamship.  Students who attended the school came from places like Bella Coola, Bella Bella, from the Haida Gwai and all along the northern British Columbia Coast and Interior.  Joe Gosnell, a former student, went on to negotiate the first modern land claims treaty with the Nisga'a nation in the Nass Valley in 1997.


As the Coast Salish dancers began preparations for their healing dance, Chief Cranmer said, "We have come to look past what's happened to you.  We have come here for our ancestors.  We can find time to move to a better place."


Later in the afternoon, as the ceremonies continued, the only levity in the moment was a 50/50 draw happening in the background as the students made their way to the former building which for many still serves as a dark symbol of Canadian colonialism.


As a lineup formed inside the school, the hallways and the classrooms brought back the kind of memories that had many people keeled over and sobbing with tears.


Some needed to be held up for fear of falling over. Relatives and friends clung to one another.


Back at the Big House, another speaker said, "It is time for healing and reconciliation.  The colonizers brought an oppression which made us oppress ourselves."


Chief Cranmer once again addressed the gathering. "We used to line up to pray to a God we didn't believe in. Our role models weren't positive.  We suffered from diseases brought in by colonization, the residential school system which hurt our culture and the potlatch prohibition.  They took away our humanity.  We need to help our people help themselves," he said.


By the evening, the crowd stood still in the Big House as Anglican Bishop James Cowan, dressed in formal pink regalia said that although a formal apology was issued in August of 1993, that he was there once again to apologize on behalf of the Church for abusing the students "physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally."


He said, "How many times do we have to apologize - as many times as it takes for you to find justice, reconciliation and healing.  We will do it as long as necessary until you feel it in your hearts.  The apology has to be uttered as long as you need to hear it, even if certain members of the Church do not feel that it is necessary."


As Bishop Cowan returned a staff made by former students back to Chief Cranmer as a sign of collateral for that forgiveness, the Chief said, "We do not know if we are yet ready to accept your apology.  It may take my people two generations to recover what has been taken away."


Andrea Cranmer, the organizer for the student gathering said, "The weekend was about healing our First Nations people from the trauma.  We wanted the people here to be together and move forward from there."  She was also disappointed that the federal and provincial governments did not send representatives and said that they "missed an opportunity to bridge the gap."


Gloria Cranmer Webster, an anthropologist and a former director of the U’mista Cultural Centre who did not attend the school said, "Some bad things happened to some people, but some good things happened too.  We can't just sit around crying." 


Cranmer Webster was involved in repatriating some artifacts that had been seized in 1922 as part of the Potlatch Prohibition. They eventually found their way to the Canadian Museum of Man, the predecessor to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and now are part of the permanent exhibit at the U'mista Cultural Centre.  Cranmber Webster also led landmark efforts to revive the Kwak'wala language.


BC Premier Gordon Campbell earlier in the week called for a new relationship with First Nations with a view to building a ten year plan with other premiers and the federal government.  Although many in the First Nations community viewed his call for a referendum on land claims a few years ago as highly inflammatory, there now seems to be a greater willingness to cooperate.


One of the plans for the St. Michael's site, which has been there since 1929, is for teaching the Kwak'wala language and building an extension for the Cultural Centre.  Cranmer Webster says, "It could be successful if it is managed properly with a long term vision."