Healing from horrors of Indian Residential Schools during BC Truth and Reconciliation Week

In a powerful speech, Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, addressed a crowd of thousands at the Pacific Colesium, saying also that, “This is not an aboriginal problem, this is a problem for all of Canada.  Those listening were moved to tears and told a Vancouver Observer reporter the stories of grandmothers and mothers, grandfathers and fathers, torn from family homes as young children to attend Indian Residential Schools.

Yawilthma Sharon Neel sitting in a bench inside a tent set up at the Pacific National Exhibition. Photo by Krystle Alarcon

Like too many of her generation, Lorelei Williams' mother had to develop a defense mechanism after she went to St. Mary's Indian Residential School.  She resorted to alcohol to numb the pain. For her mother, BC Truth and Reconciliation Week, and the event yesterday at Pacific Colesium with its rousing keynote  by Justice Murray Sinclair, came too late.

Williams' mother passed away last year.

"I find it very emotional just to come here. I’m getting anxiety... Her story wasn’t ever told because she just couldn’t come out with it."

On the rare times that her mother opened up to Williams about residential school, her words would strike a nerve.

"The hardest part was what she told me in front of my daughter, who was six at the time. She told me that she was taken from her mother at six years old. And she said she was taken on a bus. And she counted the mountains from her reserve to St.Mary’s so she can find her way home.

"So she’s telling me this and I’m looking at my daughter.. and I’m thinking 'Oh my gosh, if my daughter was taken like that, I can understand why there’s so much abuse, and pain and alcoholism. How do you even heal from that? I don’t even know what I would do to myself if that happened to me and my daughter.'"

Lorelei Williams in front of a tepee set up at the Pacific National Exhibition in a photo by Krystle Alarcon

Many women in Williams' family suffered from abuse, she said. Her cousin's DNA was found on Pickton's farm, and her aunt is still missing.

Her mother died on April 25, 2012. And Williams did not cancel a hip-hop dance called Butterflies in Spirit she dedicated to her cousin and aunt, which she initiated during the Missing Women Commission Inquiry, scheduled to take place a mere five days after her death.

"I still went on with the performance because I knew how much it meant to her, to get my missing aunty’s picture out there."

And she's still trying to make a difference. Williams outreaches to aboriginal sex workers, at-risk youth and family members of missing and murdered women with the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre Society.

Asked what her thoughts are on the Truth and Reconciliation meetings, the personal became political.

"People say this is history. The last residential school was closed in 1996. My children don’t have grandparents, they don’t have a grandmother now because of this. And when they come out and tell their stories, it’s a start of healing."

A ritual meant to heal

Tissue boxes were laid on every other folding chair of the first few front rows of the Pacific Coliseum, as the event began.

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