I’tustolagalis – Rising Up, Together: St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C. — one of five remaining residential schools in the province — is slated for demolition later this year. This is the second of a three-part February series looking further into the stories of the students, challenges faced by local First Nations in the Comox Valley today, and a special mid-month ceremony at the school to acknowledge the past and ignite hope for the future.
Part of Evelyn Voyageur’s weekly routine is going for a swim at the pool in Courtenay.
What is also becoming routine are the seemingly innocuous comments she hears on a regular basis.
“There goes that warrior woman,” says one woman who passes her by.
Voyageur hears the words, but tries to not let them hurt her.
“Racism is good and alive.”
It’s been 10 years since she moved to the Comox Valley and decades since she attended St. Michael’s Residential School, but while the school system no longer exists, the derogatory words and comments directed towards First Nations people continues.
“It still exists, even though many think it doesn’t, it does,” she notes.
She recalls stories of her daughter and grandson dealing with racism, yet Voyageur remains optimistic. She believes people have the ability to change, telling her daughter it’s a lack of knowledge for those who tell her that her son won’t do as well in school because he’s aboriginal.
“It’s really about educating people. As long as people are open to that, education will help,” she concedes.
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In a small room across the Valley in Comox, surrounded by his peers, Andrew Jütte says his skin colour looks like he’s really tanned, but not aboriginal.
On a recent university application, he didn’t declare his First Nation status, rather, indicating he is Caucasian.
“It’s one of those things, you’ve got to pick your battles.”
As a Grade 12 student, Jütte eloquently speaks about racism and shares stories — along with other Highland Secondary Students — with the wisdom of someone twice his age. Those around him do the same.
The students in the room are part of the school’s Aboriginal Student Council — the first ever in Canadian schools. Aboriginal and non-aboriginal students created the council five years ago to share stories, support each other, educate their peers and bring awareness to First Nations issues both within the walls of their school and the larger community.
It’s a place of respect, added Josie Andrew, the aboriginal home support worker for the school, who also attended the Christie (Kakawis) Indian Residential School near Tofino.
“These are some very strong role models. We have 95 students of aboriginal ancestry and there’s a cultural pride. We have to break that stereotype of what an aboriginal looks like and what they do,” she notes. “I take my hat off to these kids. The biggest thing is that they look out for each other.”
The students share their own experiences, using each interaction as an opportunity to rise above racism.
Ashley Taylor recalls when she told her fellow friends in cadets she was aboriginal, “their jaws dropped to the floor. You don’t have to be brown — don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Cub Scout leader Billie Heinpalu says when one parent discovered she was aboriginal, she didn’t want her child to join, telling Heinpalu she would grow up to be a child molester because she’s First Nations and enjoys working with children.
“I still think about that; I think about what the other parents think of me. It really hurts.”
Jütte explains this is how the council can really help, allowing people to share their experiences with the same problem.
“You have a choice. You can let it sting and bother you, or you can choose to bury the hatchet and keep walking forward. For problems to get solved, you have to talk about it, you don’t have to face it alone.”
While the group began solely with First Nations students, any member of the student population is welcome to join.
International student Jade Cook joined the council, coming from South Africa, to learn more about aboriginal culture and traditions. She’s aware of the measurable racism in her home country, but never realized the prevailing racism across the world.
“It’s really a medieval mindset that someone thinks they are better than someone else. It’s really sad,” she notes. “It’s everywhere. We really need to educate the younger generation.”
While she truly believes racism against First Nations is improving, Andrew agrees with the students that education is the answer.
“For a lot of people, everything they learn about aboriginals is around the kitchen table. We go into the classrooms and do presentations on residential schools, and students are shocked to learn that the last one closed in their lifetime,” she says. “If you can affect one person through education, then it’s worth it.”