I had the pleasure of meeting three First Nations women who grew up and went to residential school near where I spent idyllic summers at my Nana’s house on the Shuswap lake in BC.
Evelyn Camille, her sister Sadie Leon and their old friend Barbara Eaton, now a retired nurse, were perched on a bench at The Forks after the (rather long) opening ceremonies Wednesday when photographer Ken Gigliotti and I asked them for an interview. You can see more of Ken’s pictures in this slideshow.
They were a great bunch of ladies – they supermodeled for the camera and teased each other and made jokes about how Indians really hate bad-hair days because hair and braids are a point of spiritual pride. Evelyn Camille, the matriarch of the three, even chastised me for asking questions that were too blunt for survivors like her little sister, whose experiences are still raw. Touché, Evelyn.
The trio went to the Catholic-run Kamloops residential school together and now live in that city or in Chase, a hamlet I visited every Saturday, every summer to stock up on Fruit Loops and Fresca.
My childhood summers there were perfect, even the Sunday trips to St. Mary’s United Church, where my cousin sometimes got to ring the church bell. I wonder if my Nana, who was very politically active, knew that a short drive from her cottage stood one of the schools meant to de-Indianize all the Shuswap kids in the area.
Eaton talked about her own granny getting her ready one day in a nice dress, doing her hair in ringlets or braids and packing a brown suitcase for their trip to the school. Eaton’s granny stayed with her in the school’s fancy parlour for hours, waiting for a priest or nun to acknowledge them, before finally getting up to leave, telling Eaton to be a good girl.
Eaton said she sat there for another few hours as it got dark outside, before someone in a long black dress – man or woman? Eaton couldn’t quite tell at age 5 – finally arrived, took her by the hand got her into some pyjamas and put her to bed in a big room. Eaton never got her suitcase back and she didn’t see her granny again until the summer. Not long after, her granny became an alcoholic.
The three women also remembered being de-loused with coal oil, having their hair chopped off and never getting to see their brothers and sisters even though they were in the same school.
Oddly enough, Evelyn Camille said her own mother was a staunch Catholic, despite the fact that the Kamloops school stole her children.
Saying Catholic prayers in their Shuswap language helped keep their language alive. I asked Evelyn if she still went to church. "Only when I have to," she laughed.
"If I can sit in church and not think in the back of my mind of all the things they did to me, that’s reconciliation. That it wasn’t under his hand that I suffered. It wasn’t them personally who did this to me," said Camille. "I think I am halfway there."
The Kamloops school closed in 1977, three years after I was born.