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  • Writer's pictureNancy Arsenault

If the Walls Could Speak

I recently taught a Remarkable Experiences course for Destination BC at the St. Eugene Resort and Casino. At first blush, the location seemed generic - a resort/casino destination - but on researching the property and arriving on site, I learned that this location represents so much more than what we see today. I discovered a story, that tore at my heart, and launched a quest to learn more.

Located on the land of the Ktunaxa First Nations, whose territory stretches 70,000 km in the Kootenays the Mission building I stayed in was originally a residential school from 1910 to 1970. Known at the time as the Kootenay Indian Residential School the "facility was the first comprehensive Indian ‘Industrial and Residential’ school to be built in the Canadian West. Operating under the government’s assimilation policy, the Mission instructed 5000 children from the Okanagan, Shuswap and Blackfoot Nations in addition to the area’s Ktunaxa Nation."

I vividly recall arriving on site and seeing the cross atop the Mission heritage building with the frames of teepees on the snow-covered lawn. The irony of the cross and the teepee struck me profoundly as I reflected on the decisions made by our predecessors to tear children from their families and force them into residential schools. I thought of my two boys, the joy of raising them, and was parallelized with emotion realizing decades of children never had that right.

I'm a cultural explorer, so after checking into my room, looked at the walls and wondered who had lived in this room, what was their life like? I began to explore the Mission building and discovered walls and walls of photographs of children and elders and was riveted in thought with each photo. Each one had a story to tell but I couldn't find it. I walked, searched, explored the property and knew there was a story that would help me understand, help me learn what I wasn't taught in school, help me appreciate why the truth and reconciliation activities are so important to our collective future.

My quest for learning was satiated the first morning of the course when Marty Williams, a Ktunaxa elder shared his personal story. I won't go into the details for it is not my story to tell, but as he spoke of his life, being torn from his family at the age of five, the horrors he endured, and the life-long impact it has on him, his family and his community it brought tears to my eyes. He concluded with a prayer from the Wisdomkeepers; a book he said he pulled from the trash where it didn't belong. Thank you Marty, for sharing, thank you for helping me understand. All Canadians should have this opportunity to listen, learn and reflect. We can't change a past that we were not part of, but we can help shape the future together.

I was reminded of a conversation I had several years ago with Johannes Lampe, an Inuit elder in Nunatsiavut, who also was ripped from his family, taken off the land and also forced to live in a residential school where the children from different First Nations spoke different languages so couldn't even find comfort in speaking to the other children. I was struck by the similarities at opposite ends of our country and it saddened me to think of this dark part of our 100-year history that negatively impacted 150,000 children plus their families and communities.

In Nunatsiavut, I was hired to create their strategic tourism development plan, but Johannes (now president of the Nunatsiavut independent government) said to me something I'll never forget. "I trust my people hired you for your skills, we don't need to talk about that. What I need you to know is our story, the story of the Inuit people and how our life has changed since Newfoundland and Labrador became part of Canada, the impact of residential schools on our life."

Anticipating a 30-minute meeting, I was gifted by Johannes holding my hand, looking me in the eyes, and softly, proudly, sharing his story, the story of his people for 90 minutes. He framed how tourism is only one element of a healthy community for it brings economic benefits and the ability to share their way of life, culture and history. But that this must be balanced first and foremost by the health and wellness of the community and its people. It is a life lesson I will never forget and one I wish I had been given early in my life.

As a non-aboriginal person, I know I have a role to play in the future of Canada and supporting the reconciliation process. As a tourism educator and destination developer I know I must continue my personal learning journey, I must ask new questions, and I must seek enriched understanding so that I may take the lessons shared with me and share them and apply them in ways that contribute to healing. We all have a role to play.

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