A chapter in the process of reconciliation and healing between the Ktunaxa First Nation and the Diocese of Nelson over their mutual residential school history has concluded, opening up a new chapter in relations between the two groups.
Returning To Spirit (RTS) is a series of workshops; the first for aboriginals, the second for non-aboriginals and a third — the Reconciliation Workshop — that brings the two groups together.
The St. Eugene Residential School near Cranbrook was the only such school in the Diocese of Nelson, and one of 18 in British Columbia.
Mary Richardson, Lay Pastoral Worker to the First Nations of the East Kootenay for the Diocese of Nelson, explained the process. The first two workshops of Returning to Spirit (RTS) are exactly the same workshop, but given to each group separately. In these workshops the concept of residential school and how it affected the children who attended is brought to light within the workshop along with how such past experiences of our own can also affect our lives.
“We all carry baggage from our past and it is what happens to that baggage we carry into the present and into the future,” Richardson said. “In order to become the ‘real you’ you have to let go of the baggage that is weighing you down.
“Also what happens to you today can become baggage tomorrow if you allow it to weigh you down, so therefore you always need to deal with ongoing issues, hurts in your life, in order to let go and move forward. And that is where reconciliation comes in: Reconciling with others and yourself is an ongoing process.
“It is about letting go of the past, today, in the present before it becomes heavy baggage that you are carrying into your future. It is about making things right and moving forward.”
The RTS workshop for aboriginals was held in November, 2011, and the one for non-aboriginals in January, 2012. The RTS Reconciliation Workshop brought the two groups together at the St. Eugene Mission Resort (the old Kootenay Indian Residential School), in November, 2012.
“For two days the groups met separately to work on communication skills and the final three days the two groups came together for reconciliation,” said Richardson, who served as host coordinator — not taking part in the workshops per se, but being there to assist the facilitators.
In February of 2011, Richardson had made a presentation to Diocesan Pastoral Council, and was given the go ahead to form a committee to look at bringing the workshops into the Diocese and in particular to the Cranbrook area.
Richardson had previously attended a non-aboriginal workshop in St. Albert, Alberta, in 2008. From that she invited some Ktunaxa Nation members to participate in the Aboriginal Workshop in 2009 in Calgary. And the three attended the Reconciliation Workshop in Saskatoon in the fall of 2009.
In early 2011, enough funding was secured to proceed with the workshops in the Cranbrook area.
Among those who attended was Bishop John Corriveau, of the Diocese of Nelson.
“When I came here (five years ago), the residential school question was really up front,” he said. “And I was struck by the testimony of bishops across Western Canada as to the effectiveness of the workshops.”
“The whole process reminded me of what it takes to be a truly reconciling person,” he said. “Reconciliation begins in myself. If the relationship has to change, you can’t sit back and think that it will be a gift from outside, it has to come from inside.
“For a whole week we worked on that — it prepared us for the session when the two communities got together.”
One thing that struck Corriveau during the workshops was the depth of cultural violence under the residential school system.
“It made me aware of the tragedy of the residential schools — the systemic violence done to four generations of people.
“If a five- or six-year-old goes into a school and is punished for speaking his or her own language, that is cultural violence. A child would personalize (an attack on his language),” he said.
Another aspect that struck the Bishop was the commitment by the Ktunaxa people to move forward. “They are absolutely committed to rebuilding family and communal values,” he said. “I saw this as a real sign of hope.
“I also came away with the conviction that the wider society of our church and our culture will be impoverished if we allow this cultural divide to remain,” he said.
Herman Alpine, an elder with the Ktunaxa Nation, attended the St. Eugene residential school from 1949 to 1961. The trauma of being cut off from his culture, of being taught to hate who he was, left him with deep psychological injuries, that set him on a self-damaging path through life.
“Being human, I reached for humans to blame. I blamed the priests, I blamed white people — for many years that’s the way I thought,” Alpine said.
“There was a lot of hate, not only for other people but for myself. There was a lot of inner racism.”
However, Alpine came to realize he was suffering from what’s known as Residential School Trauma, and he sought treatment for it, at a years-long program at the Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Health & Wellness Centre in Creston. The result was Alpine began looking within, and finding the strength to begin the healing process.
“I realized I was no longer the centre of my universe, and I chose to tell myself I was no longer a victim,” he said. “I understood why I was the way I was, and could accept the things I did.”
After the years of trauma, and the years of treatment and awakening, Alpine found a sense of closure from of the Returning to Spirit sessions.
“The fact that we did it with non-natives and clergy, and had a chance to put our feelings forward as to how we were treated, was eye-opening,” he said.
“I had all sorts of feelings of how I would act when I met them — would I curse them? Would I call them down? But talking to them, I found we are all alike.
“Being able to sit there and talk to the Bishop and the priests, to tell them about what happened to me, how I felt about waking up and finding myself Catholic … about that purpose of trying to kill the Indian within.”
Alpine also said that reconciliation starts with one’s self, and comes from within first.
“The hope I have is that this never happens again,” Alpine said. “This process of controlling people of changing them.
“I’d suggest to anyone who has the chance to do the workshops to do them.”
“I think it’s only going the bear good fruit,” Bishop Corriveau said.
Richardson said there are still possibilities for another workshop here, or within the Diocese of Nelson which includes the Okanagan area.
“We have experienced something unique, something that can change us within, ‘to Return us to the Spirit of Who We Are,’ something that can move us forward for ourselves, for our communities and move us towards working together for the good of all,” she said.