Vancouver Island schools, politicians, survivors mourn Kamloops residential school deaths

Vancouver Island children and teachers are being encouraged to wear orange shirts this week in memory of the 215 children whose remains were found on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops.

“That is a step in the conversation,” said Shelly Niemi, district administrator for Indigenous education with the Greater Victoria School District.

Senior staff at the school district met over the weekend to discuss how to begin conversations in the schools about last Friday’s findings in Kamloops.

“Where do we start to have these conversations and not just on Sept. 30 on Orange Shirt Day?” said Niemi. “How do we collectively do this as a continuation right throughout the entire school year?”

Flags were lowered to half-staff around the island. At Victoria City Hall, the flag was lowered by a survivor of the residential school system.

“As a residential school survivor, we just want people to hear our story and acknowledge that this really happened,” said Eddy Charlie, a Kuper Island school survivor.

Melvin Jones spent two weeks in a residential school in Port Alberni in the early 1960s. He was then transferred to the Nanaimo Indian Hospital at the age of six.

“I don’t know what we did wrong to deserve what we got,” said Jones on Monday.

He says he was strapped to a gurney for 20 hours at a time and endured electric-shock treatment by the doctors at the hospital.

“They put these electrodes on my head, they did this every day and they were shocking me every day,” said Jones.

One day Jones saw his friend George being walked down the hallway of the hospital by a doctor and a nurse.

“I started crying, you know, because I think he’s going to get his shock treatment,” said Jones.

He never saw his friend George again.

“He never came back,” said Jones.

On Monday, Premier John Horgan was not mincing his words about Canada’s history with residential schools.

“We are a proud people, we’ve done extraordinary things together but we’ve also done atrocious things together and collectively we have a responsibility to face that head on,” said Horgan. “After the discovery of a mass grave in Kamloops it’s more real than ever before.”

MLA Adam Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, called on the premier to take action rather than just speaking words.

“We must make those resources immediately available for trauma and healing services,” said Olsen. “It’s time for the representatives in this chamber to stop saying how we can’t do this and start finding ways that we can do it.”