Former Qualicum First Nations chief Kim Recalma-Clutesi’s great uncle John died at a residential school.

Former Qualicum First Nations chief shares the story of her family’s horrific experience with residential schools

This column by Kim Recalma-Clutesi comes in the wake of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report

  • Jun. 9, 2015 7:00 p.m.

KIM RECALMA-CLUTESI

Special to The NEWS

“…Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem, it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us …”  Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, June 2, 2002.

To mark the tabling of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on June 2, I registered my great uncle John Recalma’s death on the TRC’s Missing Child or Unmarked Graves Report. This was not possible before the TRC process.

My great uncle John died in the Port Alberni Indian Residential School on November 4, 1918. His cause of death was never recorded, his grave was never marked, he was never given a proper burial, his mother, (my great grandmother), Agnes, was never informed of his death. He was only 14 years old.

About 40 years ago, my late father-in-law, George Clutesi, told me of John’s violent death. He was witness to John being beaten and thrown into the root cellar for speaking his language and when the root cellar door was opened a couple days later; John had died from his injuries.

John is only one of an estimated 7,000 residential school students who never made it home. He is one of thousands who were left in unmarked graves on the grounds of 140 residential schools scattered across Canada.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that the Canadian government knew as early as 1907 that the odds of dying in their church-run, government-mandated Indian Residential School was one in 25, even higher than the one in 26 odds of dying in the Second World War. Even knowing these odds, the Indian Residential Schools continued for another 89 years, incarcerating over 150,000 Aboriginal children in conditions void of minimal standards for human life.  Seven generations faced horrific, terrifying and unspeakable abuse across Canada.

The residential school story is not ancient history — five schools operated here, in the Vancouver Island region, within a few hours drive from Parksville Qualiucm Beach, from 1890 to 1983:

• Alberni Residential School (1892-1973) Presbyterian and the United Church of Canada;

• Kuper Island Residential School (1890-1975) Roman Catholic Church;

• Christie (Kakawis) Residential School (1900-1983) Roman Catholic Church;

• Ahousaht Residential School (1895-1940) Presbyterian and the United Church of Canada;

• St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay (1890-1974) Anglican Church.

The grooming and abuse of more than 150,000 Aboriginal children who attended residential schools was so complete that few spoke openly of the horror of their experiences. It was not until the courts mandated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as part of the 2006 settlement for a class action suit brought on by residential school survivors, that the emotional dams broke and the tears flowed.

My late father, Chief Buddy Recalma, spent his entire adult life working within the Native Brotherhood of B.C., the R.A.V.E.N. Society, the Southern Vancouver Island Tribal Federation, the U.B.C.I.C and the Federal Liberal Party of Canada to correct these historic wrongs and to educate prime ministers, federal ministers, MPs, and senators since Pierre Trudeau’s time in office. I was witness to many of these conversations. Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Parliamentary Secretary for Aboriginal Affairs reminded me last night that Buddy was a main educator to the prime minister over the years.

The Kelowna Accord was in part a result of Martin’s continued education by survivors like my father and his deep conviction that Canada has an obligation to correct this dark part of Canadian history.

What have we done as Canadians with the 20-year plan laid out in the 1996 Dussault, Erasmus Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs? Nothing.

What has been done to replace Martin’s 2005 Kelowna Accord that was the result of an unprecedented consultative process involving the federal, provincial and territorial governments, and five national Aboriginal Organizations. Nothing.

What will be done with the 94 TRC recommendations? Will Prime Minister Stephen Harper shelve this report as he shelved the Kelowna Accord?

It’s been 97 years since my great uncle died. I pray it will not take one more year for Canadian society to understand that his life mattered, his resting place matters and his death needs to be remembered.

— Kim Recalma-Clutesi is a traditional ecological and cultural knowledge holder; educator;  activist; film producer/director and former elected Chief of the Qualicum First Nation. E-mail: kim_recalma-clutesi@shaw.ca.

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