When it was suggested by his councillor that he ‘write a book’ Coast Salish Elder Raymond Tony Charlie said, “I can’t write a book. I can’t write!” His councillor persisted and, after almost ten years in the making, Charlie has proved himself wrong. He has exposed in direct, deeply personal language what it was like for him to suffer physical, psychological and sexual abuse in two B.C. residential schools (Kuper Island and Mission) and the lasting trauma those experiences inflicted.
It’s his story, but he speaks for all the boys and girls, more than 150,000 of them, who were subjected to the genocidal project of ‘taking the Indian out of the Indian’ by successive Canadian governments from the mid-19th Century to 1996, when the last residential school was closed.
Writing In the Shadow of the Red Brick Building, has been an act of overcoming the shame Charlie and thousands of others lived with after having been violated by those who operated residential schools across Canada – a racist project that was perverted even more by the child molesters and abusers in the system who preyed on their charges. The damage wrought behind the red brick walls of places like Kuper Island’s residential school has affected whole communities for generations, Charlie says.
You don’t get over those kinds of experiences; healing is a process of learning to live with them, and hoping your children and grandchildren can be guided to a place where they are proud of their indigenous heritage. It begins with speaking out. “I felt, as difficult as it was, I have to be direct with myself, I have to be honest and let anyone know, if they want to know or want to learn about our people, what difficulties we have,” he said. “I think, specifically, a lot of our people are still in trauma.”
Established in 1889, the Kuper Island Residential School was demolished in the 1980s. As a symbol, it still weighs heavily in many peoples’ thoughts. Charlie remembers visitors to what is now Penelakut Island admiring the architecture of the building. “Our building was four stories high, and it was bright red, and people would always come to the island and they’d say, ‘Oh! What a beautiful building’,” he recalls. “They were visitors just come to see the island, and they’d come to see the priests and the nuns… And I’d look and say, ‘Why is somebody calling it a beautiful building, and when I think about it, it’s harboured a lot of pain in the lives of our people.”
Hul’qumi’num culture is strong and resilient, Charlie says. He hopes his book will contribute to the revival of traditional ways into the 21st Century. “What I’m noticing is a lot of our younger people are starting to dance. They have dance groups, they have drumming and singing. A lot of them are starting to wear their cultural pieces that they have, paddle jackets and things like that, and they look very proud, very happy, and it warms my heart.”
Speaking to survivors of the residential school system, Charlie ends a poem to them with the line, “Love yourself because you’re special.” As grandparents and elders they have many things to teach their communities – resilience and the ability to persevere despite discrimination perhaps the most important lessons of all.
In the Shadow of the Red Brick Building is available from Askew Creek Books (firstname.lastname@example.org) and on Amazon.com.