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By Shelley Balfour, Cranbrook District Teachers’ Association president and Teacher Magazine Advisory Board member

As a settler in British Columbia, identifying the part I play in recon-ciliation has been a circuitous journey. I have known for a long time that things were unequal and dreadfully unfair, but I couldn’t find my part in the work that needed to be done. Now, at 58 years old, I can say that I am working on acknowledging the past, making changes to be a better ally, and starting to help others see their part in the journey to reconciliation.

I lived most of my childhood in Kamloops. My family owned a trucking company that leased property “on the reserve.” That was my first connection to those words. 

Every day we drove past the beautiful setting of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. At the time, I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. However, in 1977, the year the Kamloops Indian Residential School closed, a group of Indigenous students joined our junior high. Prior to this unexpected arrival, my school was a sea of white faces with very few people of colour, including the staff. We had an opportunity to welcome the survivors of the residential school into our classroom, school, and community, but my recollection is that we did not. As settler teenagers, we watched, we judged, but mostly, we ignored the new students. I don’t recall the teachers making an effort to discuss the residential school system, although they must have known where the students had arrived from.

Several summers ago, while visiting the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg, where an entire floor is dedicated to the history of the residential schools in Canada, I learned that the Kamloops residential school was one of the worst schools for abuse and neglect of students. In 2019, when I was home to attend the BCTF Summer Leadership Conference, I took a tour of the school for the first time. The main part of the building remains untouched. Even today, the sadness is palpable—I couldn’t hear the tour guide’s voice, I could only hear the tiny voices in the night. Those little voices I didn’t hear as we drove past every day in my youth.

At age 20, I packed up my belongings to head north, with a “quick stop” in Lethbridge to visit relatives. I ended up staying. I found a job in a law firm and met my husband. I immediately noticed Lethbridge had a much more visible presence of Indigenous people and a more overtly racist tone to it. From my legal secretary’s chair, I became very aware of the racist comments, the mistreatment of Indigenous people, and the inequity of the justice system. Thoughts were starting to percolate about what I could do to make a difference.

My husband graduated from the teaching program the summer we got married. His first teaching job was at Upper Hay River Day School (now Upper Hay River School) in Meander River, a tiny Dene Thá community in northern Alberta. I worked as the school secretary while he taught a class of eight students. For us this was a grand adventure, but for the folks who lived there it was a sad reality. The only buildings with electricity and running water were the school, the Catholic church, the Hudson’s Bay trading post, and the teacherages we lived in. The rest of the village lived in darkness. The settlers received the luxuries, while the community members lived without. In winter, I often had a lineup at my door to fill water jugs or to do laundry. I had many cups of tea with friends while the washer did its work. It was during these laundry dates I learned that these women sitting in my living room were among the first to return from the residential school in Hay River after its closure in 1969. Their children were the first in generations to start at the “day” school in their own community. They told me stories of the heartbreak, the violence, and the difficult return to their homes, where they were strangers to their own families.

During our second year in Meander River, I went so far as to foster a young girl named Roberta. We took Roberta with us when we moved south to Dawson Creek at the end of that year with no formal agreement in place—we just took her. As we prepared to drive out of Meander River, Roberta stood in the back seat with silent tears and not uttering a word. Roberta stayed with us for almost two years. Her mom checked in periodically. I believed that I had a responsibility to change Roberta’s life for the better. I had no experience as a parent and couldn’t manage the behaviours. It took me two years to realize what she actually needed was her family, not another white settler here to save her. The village already had their share of that with the Hudson’s Bay trading post, the Catholic church, and the school filled with white teachers. I reached out to Roberta’s mom and she arrived a month later by Greyhound bus to pick her up. I will never forget Roberta staring out the window of the bus, tears rolling down her face again as the bus pulled away, my husband and I crying on the dock. A regret I still live with.

A further move south, brought us to Cranbrook in 1995. I discovered the St. Eugene Mission Residential School during a drive to explore our new surroundings. It was a heartbreaking scene of broken windows, neglect, and sadness nestled amongst the beautiful Rockies. In 1970 it closed and sat empty until Chief Sophie Pierre and her council had to make a decision. They could tear the building down to rid the community of the sorrow, or they could heed the words of Elder Mary Paul: “Since it was within the St. Eugene Mission school that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.” Mary Paul knew that to destroy the building would not destroy the memories. The year 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of the opening of the very successful and beautiful St. Eugene Mission and Golf Course.

For my Masters’ degree, I did an appreciative inquiry on the transformation of St. Eugene Mission Residential School. I was struck by the words I remembered of Mary Paul and used them as the basis of the paper. Sifting through the many documents on Canada’s residential schools, the stories of survivors, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and reading the words of Chief Sophie Pierre, I realized my place as a settler on this land is a privilege, and I began to understand that the only way for the healing to begin, for settlers and Indigenous Peoples, is for people like me to commit to acknowledging past crimes and to work tirelessly to make sure we don’t assimilate, but celebrate what we all bring to the world. I have some reconciliation of my own to do.

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