First Nations say knowing history, despite the pain and trauma, means never letting it happen again
Charlene Belleau is a member of Esk'etemc First Nation and has a distinguished record of service. To name a few of her roles, she served as Chief on council, former Chair of the First Nations Health Council, and was recently appointed as a First Nations liaison with the BC Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. She is also a residential school survivor and joined a panel of international speakers at Healing Our Spirit Worldwide who all shared stories of forced relocation of Indigenous children in their respective countries.
Charlene retold the painful story of her grandfather, who was forced to attend the St. Joseph's Mission Residential School, near Williams Lake, BC. Through tears, she recalled how eight children at the school made a suicide pact due to the unbearable conditions and abuse, and the fear and loneliness they felt from being isolated from their family and stripped of their culture.
Of the eight children, only her grandfather died in 1920 from drinking the poisonous hemlock mixture. Because he died by suicide, he has no known grave. His death was not registered, and neither was his birth. Only the family knows he is buried on the grounds somewhere.
Charlene told this story because reconciliation not only stems from truth and justice, but it must be led by the voices of survivors. That means listening to survivors' stories about what they experienced and how they suffered.
The uncovering of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children at Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc in May 2021 was shocking to Canadians but is an example of listening to what the community had been saying throughout the years.
Discoveries like Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, and others across Canada, sparked a movement to identify and return the remains of the missing children to their families. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 4,100 students at 130 schools across Canada never made it back home.
“Our missing children are our ancestors too and their spirits are with us too as we search … to bring them home," said Charlene.
Charlene said that a century and a half of colonial violence continues to destroy families and communities to this day. That colonialism is also linked to Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people, overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care, Indigenous people who are incarcerated, and those lost to the unregulated poisonous and toxic drug supply.
But, she added, the resiliency of First Nations and Indigenous people in BC and Canada is apparent as they push for accountability and reconciliation on their own terms.
Charlene closed her presentation by thanking the ancestors for giving them the knowledge and medicine to heal themselves.