Pikwakanagan — There were tears, and visible emotions of sadness, grief and anger as the 215 children who died in a Kamloops residential school and were buried in an unmarked grave were remembered and honoured with song, dance and drumming, but there was also the encouragement to look on their memory with hope.
“Picture them dancing,” Shirley Kohoko encouraged those who gathered at the traditional Pow Wow grounds at Pikwakangan to remember the children whose bodies were discovered last week in British Columbia. “They are home now. They are no longer forgotten.”
It was a sombre evening on Monday night as many in the community, as well as others from outside the community came together to honour and remember. Physically distanced groups occupied the stands, which usually are full of spectators for the annual Pow Wow. Many wore orange and remembered the experiences their own family members had told them about the horrors of residential school.
The evening featured dancing and honour dances on the Pow Wow grounds, as well as a time for people to reflect and share. Little boots and shoes, as well as stuffed animals, lined the area near the drummers in a poignant reminder it was children who died so young and so far from their parents.
In her opening remarks, Mrs. Kohoko broke down in emotion.
“In my mind’s eye I see those children and all children trying to make it in this world,” she said.
Instead the children were sent to residential school and died there, never returning home.
“I think of the parents what they went through when their children were taken away from them,” she said.
“Those children were not bad,” she said. “They were just trying to live, trying to have fun.”
The schools were supposed to give them a better life, she noted.
“They did not do that,” she said.
The legacy of residential schools is also not over, she cautioned.
“We still have children that are taken away from us and we don’t know where they end up,” she said.
As the community deals with various emotions these deaths have sparked, she said it was important to support each other.
“This is a time we need to stand beside each other,” she said. “If someone is having a hard time, don’t make it harder for them.”
Chief Wendy Jocko said this was to honour the memory of the children and to support friends, family and relatives of the disappeared.
“Residential schools and the damage they caused still form an open wound,” she said. “As we peel away the layers of lies and myths surrounding the treatment of Indigenous people in this country, few horrors seem impossible,” she said. “The loss of life from abuse, neglect, mistreatment is hard to grasp.”
The children were victims of genocide, she said.
“Our hearts break for what our children have endured,” she said. “We think of their relatives and their descendants that would have been. This is compounded and intergenerational loss felt throughout Turtle Island and the world.”
Chief Jocko also paid tribute to one of Pikwakanagan’s own, 13-year-old Joey Commanda who ran away from residential school and was killed trying to make it home. The year was 1968. His picture was prominent next to a t-shirt those present signed and the large banner.
His older sister, Jacqueline Sarazin, carefully packed his picture at the end of the evening. She said the story is still painful for the family to recall.
“He tried to run away to come home and was hit by a train,” she said. “His other brother was with him but Joe did not make it.”
The boys had run away and made it to Toronto where he was killed.
“They made my older brother go back and look at my brother on the tracks,” she recalled.
Why her brothers were sent to residential school is still a mystery to her and the picture the family has of him was when he was still a student in Eganville.
Memories of Residential School
The legacy of pain and horror of residential school is very real in Pikwakangan. Kerry Andrews honoured her grandmother, Shirley Commanda, who was a survivor of the residential school at Spanish. She brought along her own children, Ireland and Emery, to sign the t-shirt and they both proudly wore shirts signifying they remembered their great-grandmother’s experiences. For Kerry, the children who died in British Columbia had a special poignancy because she was keenly aware they could have been her grandmother and aunty, Rita Cooke.
“We are forever grateful they came home,” she said in her remarks to those gathered. “This made me think of my own life. If my grandmother did not make it home, I would not be.”
Her grandmother had night terrors every night, she recalled. Although the grandmothers did not share all the horrors they encountered, their legacy is one of strong women who survived.
“We feel the strength of our grandmothers today,” she said.
Three of Rita Cooke’s daughters were there and in speaking to the Leader, they recalled the horrors their mother and father, James Cooke, experienced at residential school. Joanne Whiteduck wore a shirt recalling her mother was “#12” at the school. She was not even given the dignity of a name but was given a number.
For the sisters the memory is always present of residential school.
“It is all the time because I am the oldest,” Barbara Cooke said. “All my life I heard stories from my mom, my dad, my Aunty Shirley. They had to tell us because this is for us to know.”
Diane Cooke recalled her father would tell her how he protected other boys at the school from sexual abuse.
“Our dad protected the boys at night from the priests,” she said.
All three women are also 60 scoop survivors. They were taken into care for a year.
Barbara Cooke recalled going with her mother to the school in Spanish, which had since been torn down.
“They went back to the school to remember,” she said, noting her mother would meet other survivors there she went to school with.
Joanne Whiteduck said she always asked her mother if the school was so horrible why would she go back there.
“She told me ‘it was the only home we knew’,” she said.
Children would go to that school when they were anywhere between six years old and 18, she said.
All the sisters are proud of their parents and felt it was important to be at the ceremony.
“I am still here,” Barbara Cooke said. “I’m not a statistic. I’m a survivor.”
Barbara Sarazin, who came to Pikwakangan when she married her husband 41 years ago, said her own family had horrific experiences with residential school.
“I was told I was an abomination of God,” she recalled.
The reason – her parents were divorced.
Her mother suffered horrifically and then she experienced the same horrors.
“Rita Cooke and Shirley Commanda taught me they can’t take your spirit from you,” she said. “Don’t let anyone take your spirit.”
Pikwakanagan is a community of humour and silliness and that helps the community get through the trying times, she said.
“Remember those who have passed away are now flying,” she said. “Those children now are with Creator and we stand with Creator along with those children.”
Dancing is medicine and this is good to gather together as the discovery of the graves has caused old wounds to resurface, she said.
“The country’s eyes are on this,” she said. “The world’s eyes are on this.”
Shoes At the Church
Following the ceremony, where many shoes and toys had been placed in memory, a small group went to Our Lady of the Nativity in Pikwakangan to lay shoes and stuffed toys at the door of the church. The connection to the Catholic Church is not forgotten in Pikwakangan and there is anger and sorrow in the community about the legacy of the Catholic Church and the abuse at the residential schools. Some of those present spoke of moves in the community to tear the building down, but others noted it is an important place for others in the community.
Laurie Bennett said her family members, including aunts and uncles, were taken to residential school and her mother was taken to a Catholic motherhouse when she got pregnant.
“The Catholic Church took and were supposed to rehabilate my mother,” she said. “They did not help her. She scrubbed floors and baked. She was a slave for what they wanted her to do.”
These children were babies themselves when they were abused and mistreated in these ways, she said.
Dale Benoit-Zohr said it is a painful legacy for First Nations people.
“They tried to steal our identity and culture,” she said.
The discovery of the bodies in B.C. has galvanized people, she said.
“Our fight just got stronger,” she said. “We found our lost children.”