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

Semi overturns along Highway 22 in Rossland

The 40-year-old female driver was uninjured from the accident

Trail lands $65,000 airport grant

Money to be used for upgraded weather instrumentation at YZZ

Mitchell’s Musings: Rolling the dice for all the marbles

Columnist Glenn Mitchell looks at the snap election called Monday, Sept. 21

105 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death as health officials urge B.C. to remember safety protocols

There are currently 1268 active cases, with 3,337 people under public health monitoring

U.S. Presidential Debate Takeaways: An acrid tone from the opening minute

Here are key takeaways from the first of three scheduled presidential debates before Election Day on Nov. 3

B.C. nurses report rise in depression, anxiety, exhaustion due to pandemic

A new UBC study looks into how the COVID-19 response has impacted frontline nurses

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

National child-care plan could help Canada rebound from COVID-induced economic crisis: prof

A $2 billion investment this year could help parents during second wave of pandemic

Search suspended for Indigenous elder last seen mushroom picking in northwest B.C.

Mushroom picker Thomas (Tommy) Dennis has been missing since Sept. 16

16 MLAs retiring from B.C. politics add up to $20M in pensions: Taxpayers Federation

Taxpayers pay $4 for every dollar MLAs contribute to their pensions

‘Bonnie’ and ‘Henry’ among latest litter of service dog puppies

B.C. Alberta Guide Dogs names two pups after provincial health officer

Most Read