Campbell River residents Dean and Denise Nelson are pictured at the grave of Doreen Joseph, Denise’s daughter, in Alert Bay on June 9. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Multigenerational pain of residential schools lingers for many in B.C.

Cycles of substance abuse and tragedy linked to colonial policies

North Island resident Denise Nelson counted on her fingers the six relatives that died of fentanyl overdoses last year.

She was with her husband Dean Nelson at the ‘Namgis First Nation burial grounds at Alert Bay, a tiny village on Cormorant Island, northeast of northern Vancouver Island.

READ MORE: First Nations people in B.C. four times more likely to die of an overdose

Their lives have been marked by tragedies they trace back to residential schools and other colonial policies. While neither of them attended residential schools, their close relatives did. The trauma lingers in every Indigenous community, said Denise.

“Every reserve you see has been afflicted by the residential schools,” she said.

She recalled discussing residential schools in Campbell River recently. A non-Indigenous passerby told her “that’s done and over with,” Denise recalled. “I said, you know what? It is not done and over with.”

Her mother was among the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children who attended residential schools in Canada. About 6,000 of them died inside those institutions. The last one closed in 1996 in Punnichy, Sask.

Her mother survived the experience at a school in Port Alberni. But Denise said it turned her mother, who died years ago, into an abuser.

“It doesn’t go away… I was the victim of her wrath,” said Denise, 55, who is originally from Squamish Nation. She recently started attending counselling.

She was in Alert Bay to visit the grave of her daughter, Doreen Joseph. Denise said her daughter died in car accident involving a drunk driver. The cycles of substance abuse and tragedy are all linked, she said.

“It all stems down to residential schools.”

The ‘Namgis First Nation burial grounds in Alert Bay are located near the former site of St. Michael’s Residential School, which was run by the Anglican Church until 1974.

READ MORE: Residential school demolition to help close door on dark period

Indigenous children from across Vancouver Island and as far north as Haida Gwaii were forced to attend St. Michael’s, where they were prohibited from speaking their language. Many students reported physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The decrepit four-storey brick building was demolished following a healing ceremony in 2015 that brought together hundreds of people.

Former students threw stones at the building, and heavy equipment tore down the school’s front porch.

The school that once loomed over Alert Bay is now an empty field. But the past is close behind, and the intergenerational legacy of residential schools and other colonial policies endures.

“Half of these people went to that school,” said Dean Nelson, who is originally from Gilford Island, as he gestured at the surrounding grave markers. “They got taken away from all their villages.”

ALSO READ: B.C. program to help foster kids enter adulthood a mixed bag of experiences

Many of them would attempt to escape the institutions, which were designed to assimilate Indigenous children. Those who ran away included his mother, who is now deceased.

She went to a residential school in Vancouver, he said, but she ran away after it burned down.

Dean said that most of his uncles and aunts went to residential schools. They still suffer, he said, and many turned to substance abuse.

“People drank trying to kill the pain,” he said. “I drank, thinking about my family, and I drank and drank. And one day I quit… I had to.”

He said that a healing program for Indigenous people in the Campbell River area was shut down a few years ago for lack of funds. Dean and Denise both attended workshops that offered support for people dealing with issues including grief, anger and trauma.

To deal with the grief of lost family, Denise said, she often weeps and washes herself in the Campbell River as medicine.

“That’s how I’ve survived.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Campbell River residents Dean and Denise Nelson are pictured at the ‘Namgis Burial Grounds in Alert Bay on June 9. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Just Posted

Lord Tweedsmuir tops Tamanawis in all-cat fight for Surrey RCMP Classic title

Panthers’ Jaeden Reid was named MVP at all-Surrey boys tournament

Surrey hosts grand-opening ceremony of North Surrey arena complex

‘Accessible’ facility features three sheets of ice

Trade to hometown team a ‘blessing in disguise’ for Surrey Eagles defenceman

Kieran O’Hearn gets to play in front of family, who live just minutes from South Surrey Arena

White Rock solid waste open house scheduled

Event to take place next month

U-Haul truck hits hydro pole, causes power outage in Surrey

Vehicle driving westbound on Fraser Highway

UBC, Iranian-Canadian community create memorial scholarship in honour of victims

The Jan. 8 crash killed 176 people, including 57 Canadians

Disrespectful that Horgan won’t meet during northern B.C. tour: hereditary chief

Na’moks said he was frustrated Horgan didn’t meet with the chiefs

Vancouver police investigate after man found dead in vehicle

Man has not been identified and no one has been arrested

Canucks extend home win streak to 8 with 4-1 triumph over Sharks

Victory lifts Vancouver into top spot in NHL’s Pacific Division

BC Green Party leader visits northern B.C. pipeline protest site

Adam Olsen calls for better relationship between Canada, British Columbia and First Nations

‘Extensive’ work planned at Big Bar landslide ahead of salmon, steelhead migration

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan visited the site of the slide from June

Most Read