Campbell River residents Dean and Denise Nelson are pictured at the grave of Doreen Joseph, Denise’s daughter, in Alert Bay on June 9. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Campbell River residents Dean and Denise Nelson are pictured at the grave of Doreen Joseph, Denise’s daughter, in Alert Bay on June 9. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Multigenerational pain of residential schools lingers for many in B.C.

Cycles of substance abuse and tragedy linked to colonial policies

North Island resident Denise Nelson counted on her fingers the six relatives that died of fentanyl overdoses last year.

She was with her husband Dean Nelson at the ‘Namgis First Nation burial grounds at Alert Bay, a tiny village on Cormorant Island, northeast of northern Vancouver Island.

READ MORE: First Nations people in B.C. four times more likely to die of an overdose

Their lives have been marked by tragedies they trace back to residential schools and other colonial policies. While neither of them attended residential schools, their close relatives did. The trauma lingers in every Indigenous community, said Denise.

“Every reserve you see has been afflicted by the residential schools,” she said.

She recalled discussing residential schools in Campbell River recently. A non-Indigenous passerby told her “that’s done and over with,” Denise recalled. “I said, you know what? It is not done and over with.”

Her mother was among the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children who attended residential schools in Canada. About 6,000 of them died inside those institutions. The last one closed in 1996 in Punnichy, Sask.

Her mother survived the experience at a school in Port Alberni. But Denise said it turned her mother, who died years ago, into an abuser.

“It doesn’t go away… I was the victim of her wrath,” said Denise, 55, who is originally from Squamish Nation. She recently started attending counselling.

She was in Alert Bay to visit the grave of her daughter, Doreen Joseph. Denise said her daughter died in car accident involving a drunk driver. The cycles of substance abuse and tragedy are all linked, she said.

“It all stems down to residential schools.”

The ‘Namgis First Nation burial grounds in Alert Bay are located near the former site of St. Michael’s Residential School, which was run by the Anglican Church until 1974.

READ MORE: Residential school demolition to help close door on dark period

Indigenous children from across Vancouver Island and as far north as Haida Gwaii were forced to attend St. Michael’s, where they were prohibited from speaking their language. Many students reported physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The decrepit four-storey brick building was demolished following a healing ceremony in 2015 that brought together hundreds of people.

Former students threw stones at the building, and heavy equipment tore down the school’s front porch.

The school that once loomed over Alert Bay is now an empty field. But the past is close behind, and the intergenerational legacy of residential schools and other colonial policies endures.

“Half of these people went to that school,” said Dean Nelson, who is originally from Gilford Island, as he gestured at the surrounding grave markers. “They got taken away from all their villages.”

ALSO READ: B.C. program to help foster kids enter adulthood a mixed bag of experiences

Many of them would attempt to escape the institutions, which were designed to assimilate Indigenous children. Those who ran away included his mother, who is now deceased.

She went to a residential school in Vancouver, he said, but she ran away after it burned down.

Dean said that most of his uncles and aunts went to residential schools. They still suffer, he said, and many turned to substance abuse.

“People drank trying to kill the pain,” he said. “I drank, thinking about my family, and I drank and drank. And one day I quit… I had to.”

He said that a healing program for Indigenous people in the Campbell River area was shut down a few years ago for lack of funds. Dean and Denise both attended workshops that offered support for people dealing with issues including grief, anger and trauma.

To deal with the grief of lost family, Denise said, she often weeps and washes herself in the Campbell River as medicine.

“That’s how I’ve survived.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Campbell River residents Dean and Denise Nelson are pictured at the ‘Namgis Burial Grounds in Alert Bay on June 9. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Campbell River residents Dean and Denise Nelson are pictured at the ‘Namgis Burial Grounds in Alert Bay on June 9. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Just Posted

The Surrey Board of Trade is calling on the provincial government to implement a temporary paid sick-leave program. (Unsplash.com photo by Kelly Sikkema)
Surrey Board of Trade calls for temporary paid sick-leave program

Reccomendations sent to provincial labour minister, news release notes

Low tide offered plenty of space for people to relax on White Rock's beach Sunday afternoon. (Aaron Hinks photo)
City of White Rock asking outside visitors to stay away

South Surrey residents encouraged to visit, while others urged to stick close to home

North Surrey Sport and Ice Complex. (Photo: larkgroup.com)
North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex earns B.C. facility excellence award

Award is among four presented by BC Recreation and Parks Association

Surrey Central SkyTrain Station. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Suspect accused of ‘abhorrent’ assaults at Surrey SkyTrain stations

Transit Police say assaults were on April 9, 14 and 17

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Ripy Jubbal of Abbotsford has received a 30-month jail sentence for the fraudulent use of credit cards and credit card data. (Facebook photo)
Abbotsford woman sentenced for $80K in fraudulent credit card purchases

Ripy Jubbal and spouse used identities of 19 different victims, court hears

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. CDC updates info, acknowledging small respiratory droplets can spread COVID-19

Large droplets, not aerosols had been fixture of public health messaging for many months

A picture of Shirley Ann Soosay was rendered from a postmortem photographer and circulated on social media. (DDP graphic)
B.C. genealogist key to naming murder victim in decades-old California cold case

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped and stabbed to death

Most Read