The legacy of pain caused by residential schools is evident in Chilliwack, at a growing vigil outside a Catholic church.
More than 100 pairs of shoes have been placed in front of the sanctuary at St. Mary’s, along with flowers laid over top, and candles ready to be lit in the evening. The vigil began Saturday evening, says Jenny Roberts, as she greets people who come and go.
She is one of many Indigenous people in Chilliwack who have looked for a place to grieve for the 215 children whose bodies were discovered (by radar) at a former residential school in Kamloops just a few days prior. They are hoping to get to 215 pairs.
The news has sent shock waves of grief across the country, especially for those with connections to residential schools.
Nine-year-old Dayton Rubin came with his mom to the vigil to lay down a pair of shoes. His great grandmother was a residential school survivor, and near the end of her life began sharing some of the hard stories of abuse in the schools.
His mom, Amber Rychly, cried as she recalled some of the stories. Both of them wore orange shirts, a symbol of solidarity with Indigenous children.
The vigil has the blessing of the church, Roberts says, and as if on cue the priest comes out and greets her once again.
There have been drummers, and two young women have left poster boards asking others to leave thoughts about the tragic discovery. They’ve also left hand sanitizer and markers for those who feel moved to contribute their thoughts.
Marcus Ned is another young child who visited with family. He recited a prayer in Halq’eméylem, the language of the Stó:lō people. And while he could recite the entire prayer without help, his grandmother knelt beside him to help him with the English words.
While St. Mary’s in Chilliwack was not a residential school, there are former residential schools in the Fraser Valley, including Coqualeetza in Chilliwack, and the St. Mary’s Residential School in Mission. There are many survivors still living in Chilliwack, some who have shared their stories publicly but many who have not.
June Jimmie stood outside the church and remembered many of the moments from within Chilliwack’s St. Mary’s as a child. Tears fill her eyes as she looks over at the church’s school, and recalls being sent repeatedly down to the office for no reason, only to be punished with a whipping.
Her father heard their complaints and moved June and her siblings to the Atchelitz school, where she says there were bullies, but nothing like at St. Mary’s.
The school’s current principal, Jeanine Sallos, also took the time to come out and visit the vigil on Sunday morning. She said the school values their Indigenous families and students.
Another smaller vigil has started at the Chilliwack courthouse, where a half dozen shoes are sitting on the steps. On Sunday morning, Chilliwack Mayor Ken Popove asked staff to lower the flags throughout the city to half-mast, as many cities are doing.
The Chilliwack School District has also lowered their flags to half-mast for the week.
National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
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