A century-old carving will stand in Langley School District’s board offices until a permanent house pole can be created as a memorial to children lost to residential schools across Canada.
At a ceremony on Tuesday, May 31, the chiefs of the Kwantlen First Nation and Semiahmoo First Nation spoke of honouring their elders and moving forward, as the district marked one year since the discovery of approximately 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, on Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc land.
Members of the school board, senior staff, RCMP, and others from the community came to take part and listen.
Flags have flown at half mast since May 31 last year, shortly after the discovery. At the end of the ceremony, flags were raised to full mast, but this is not the end of things for the school district or local First Nations.
Chief Harley Chappell of the Semiahmoo said that a conversation about the flags began last year, when the provincial government asked districts to raise them again.
The Langley School District instead kept them at half mast, and began consulting with the Matsqui, Katzie, Kwantlen, and Semiahmoo about next steps.
Chappell said the question was how to raise the flags again while honouring the survivors, whom he called warriors.
“How do we do this in a good way, so when we drive by and see this, it’s not a sign of disrespect to the ones here?” Chappell said, indicating the gathered elders.
The district worked with the local First Nations for months and eventually decided to hold the ceremony and create a permanent memorial.
“Our first work today is honouring our residential school warriors,” said Chief Marilyn Gabriel of the Kwantlen, speaking before a group of elders and residential school survivors, along with relatives standing in for some elders who were unable to come to the ceremony.
“When we raise this flag again, it’s to wipe the tears away,” said Gabriel.
As part of Tuesday’s ceremony, the elders were brushed with cedar branches, to help them shed painful feelings.
The second work was the lending of the carving, which Gabriel said was an ancestor to the Kwantlen, to the district, until a permanent new carving can be created.
Wrapped in blankets, the carving was carried into the district offices, led by drummers, and placed just outside the chamber where the school board meets. Onlookers placed small lights around its base.
Finally, the flags were raised again at the school district offices. They will also be raised at other buildings around Langley.
“You have carried us for so long,” Gabriel said to the elders and senior relatives gathered for the ceremony.
She also placed important emphasis on the passing of knowledge on to future generations.
“We’re not here for ourselves,” she said. “Never for ourselves. We’re here for our children.”
The district’s ya:yestel (Aboriginal Education Advisory Board) will now continue working with local Indigenous nations to create a more permanent monument to residential school victims. When completed, it will be used as an educational site for students and staff in the district on the history of residential schools.
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