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Healing the hurts of residential schools in Chilliwack

Chilliwack resident Isadore Charters shares his story of residential school at this week's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Isadore Charters

For 10 months Isadore Charters has been chipping away at the pains of his history.

He's not the only one.

When Charters started carving his healing pole last fall, he didn't want it to be exclusive of his hands. And so, he took his 7-foot, yellow cedar wood pole to schools, churches, and other such community facilities around the Lower Mainland. In front of audiences, young and old, he told his story as he carved a face here, a paw there.

He invited those listening to join him in the carving journey.

"We carved together to help build a reconciliation together," said Charters, member of Soowahlie First Nations.

"Hundreds of people have helped me chip away and nurture healing."

The pole, now near completion, will be on display at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver from Sept. 18 to 21.

The TRC is leading a movement intended to uncover the truths of residential schools, and shape healing and reconciliation for survivors.

Charters, 65, is sharing his story.

"My story is about setting history straight," he said. "It's about bringing Yummo home."

When Charters was six years old, he was corralled into the back of an old farm truck with several other children from the community. Confused and crying, he watched his parents frantically waving as the truck pulled away, transporting him 50 miles from his home to a residential school in Kamloops.

There, he was separated from his siblings, was given an identification number, new clothes, and his hair was cut into a "G.I. Joe" buzz cut.

And the only name he knew – Yummo – was taken from him.

"My kid name was never spoken again," said Charters. "They took my identity away, my language, my traditions, my cultures."

They took his dignity too.

Charters was molested at the hands of school officials.

He went from a cheerful, happy go-lucky child, to an introvert who picked fights with his peers. He started drinking at the age of 11 and continued for three decades.

"I was lonely, I was angry, I was drawing really horrible pictures with knives, blood, gore, snakes coming out of mouths, mayhem," said Charters. "I was expressing my hurts."

It wasn't until Charters started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that he began to toil with the idea of healing.

He hopes his pole will complete that journey.

The pole, carved from yellow cedar wood that's more than 200 years old, has the head of a black bear cub at the top, signifying the "Creator's" presence, and a star carved into the neck indicating the bear is a brother who's come to protect them.

Inside the ears of the bear is a girl and a boy to show pureness and innocence. There's a nun carved inside one paw, in memory of the sister he trusted, and the other paw a raccoon with a black mask to signify Zorro.

"When I was a little boy there were no folklore heroes for us to latch on to until Zorro came along" said Charters. "He never hurt our people."

Below the bear is a mother figure wrapped in a blanket representing a nurturing force. Coincidentally, at 5'2, she is the same height Charters' own mother stood at.

"My mom was very nurturing," he said. "She taught us a lot about our culture."

Following Charters' presentation at TRC later this month, which will also feature a 28-minute documentary (, the healing pole will permanently reside at the location of his former residential school in Kamloops.

"It will end back where it started," said Charters.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver from Sept. 18-21. For more information, visit the website