A young Indigenous man held his fist towards the sky as the smoke rose from a fire in the centre of Mission’s Fraser River Heritage Park. It’s heat distorted the rubble foundation of St. Mary’s Residential School behind him.
Hundreds of witnesses remained silent as a harmony of chants and drums boomed up the fire encircled by bright orange shirts.
The vast majority of the crowd had never seen this before – burning ceremonies are restricted to Indigenous elders – but the discovery of umarked graves containing 215 children at Kamloops’ residential school last week caused an exception for the June 3 ceremony.
“It was a shock to us. We were frightened. Just when we thought our pain was gone … Even though we’ve always known those kids were buried there,” said Hereditary Chief Clarke Smith of Samahquam Band.
“We hope that they will help absorb some of our singing and drumming … This is a big day for them. After all these years they’ve been stuck.”
Elders, many with tears in their eyes, some needing assistance from family members to walk towards the flames, offered food to the spirits who never made it home from residential schools.
“Today is a very tough day for all of us. We have all been impacted in some way or another ” said Chief Alice Thompson of the Leq’á:mel First Nation.
The event was organized by the Mission Friendship Centre, and the burning ceremony started at 11 a.m.
After the ceremony, 200 meals were served, and a microphone was offered to elders willing to share their thoughts, experiences and grief over the discovery in Kamloops.
Over 10 elders spoke, some for a short time, some at length. Most had attended St. Mary’s school, and spoke of the trauma it caused their families. They spoke of their attempts to heal from the wounds re-opened by what was found buried in Kamloops.
Priscilla Wells spent 12 years at St. Mary’s, and said her husband, who is also a survivor of St. Mary’s, found it too difficult to come back.
“Here we are, all in turmoil again,” Wells said. “It’s tough enough living day to day without having things like this keep popping up.”
Mission Federal MP Brad Vis, Mayor Paul Horn, and every councillor was in attendance for the burning ceremony.
Horn said the history of what happened at St. Mary’s has to be taught “with the voices of Indigenous peoples,” and requires listening to leaders and elders in those communities.
“Particularly those who are ancestors of people who have lived and died here,” Horn said. “What (the Kamloops discovery) has done for a lot of the people from the larger Mission community is make something real, something that’s been real to Indigenous people forever.”
Vis stressed the importance of education about residential schools, and what actually took place at residential schools. He described what took place at St. Mary’s as a crime.
“I believe this is a watershed moment in the history of Canada, that will turn the page and hopefully lead to a better understanding of the horrible impact residential schools had,” he said.
Mahlihatkwa Gwen Thierren is an elder from Xa’Xtsa Nation of Port Douglas who attended St. Mary’s in 1948 with her sister. She said graves in Kamloops were not surprising to Indigenous peoples, who have known for years.
“I’m a bear dancer, that’s what I do because it’s part of my lineage … A bear knows where everything is buried,” Thierren said.
“We’re not finished, we still have lots of work to do, because we’ve turned the page on all the things that remain hidden. Now bear is going to continue to bring these up, it’s in the stars, this is the time that both secrets, and all those evil things, have to be dug out of the dirt.”