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Healing journey continues for Quesnel-area St. Joseph’s Mission survivors years later

First Nations across B.C. held events on Jan. 25 supporting residential school survivors

Warning: The details in this announcement may be triggering. Supports are available at the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) at 1-800-721-0066.

The journey to healing has never stopped for residential school survivors Liliane Squinas, Ella Stillas and Terry Boucher.

All three Dakelh women were surrounded by various supports at the Lhtako Family Centre near Quesnel on Tuesday, Jan. 25 after the Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) released the preliminary findings of the St. Joseph’s Mission investigation.

“I found the morning chief’s meeting a lot harder than the afternoon, maybe because I heard it earlier,” said Squinas, Chief of the Lhoosk’uz Dené Nation.

Squinas was one of several chiefs who attended a closed virtual meeting before the findings were publicly live-streamed Tuesday afternoon on Facebook.

“That came out really strong amongst all the leadership — we all have to be worried about how our community is going to take it, and that’s why both Lhtako and Lhoosk’uz Dené they’ve done really well in bringing in both the western and the traditional support mechanisms in place before this got aired,” she said.

“You do worry about your membership, especially the ones that are still suffering in silence.”

Traditional healer Johnny Johnson was on-site for brushing down and a talking circle was held before people of all ages gathered at the Lhtako Hall next door to watch the afternoon conference.

Read More: ‘93 is our number’: Williams Lake First Nation releases findings in residential school probe

The preliminary investigation revealed 93 potential graves and a dark history of cover-up and abuse.

Squinas attended St. Joseph’s Mission for 10 years and has not yet shared her story with the WLFN’s investigation team, believing priority should be given to older survivors who may be in poor health.

Her uncle Lashaway Alec from Nazko attended St. Joseph’s Mission when it began as an industrial school, as did her late mother.

Alec was able to share his story and have it recorded. Squinas credited her maternal grandmother, whom she described as a powerful matriarch, for keeping their family together and strong.

“Every day something triggers a bad memory, and you can no longer bury it no more,” she said.

“I swear we got used to doing that when we left the residential school. We weren’t permitted to talk about it, so you learned to bury it. So now that we’re at an older age, we’re learning to tackle it every day.”

Lhoosk’uz Dene Coun. Ella Stillas’ eyes had glistened with tears following the preliminary geophysical results from the first phase of the investigation.

She went to St. Joseph’s Mission for three years.

“It hit me hard,” Stillas said. “It’s a lifetime damaged through all the things that happened.”

Stillas has been on her healing journey for about 30-years.

She quit drinking and went to a treatment centre before working as a family counselor at the Nenqayni Wellness Centre for eight years.

“I keep trying to move forward no matter what, but it’s hard sometimes,” Stillas said.

She believes counselors need to be available at all times for face-to-face services within the community.

“We don’t have anybody to fall back on to say, okay, I need to talk to someone so that person is right there,” Stillas said. 

“I think with COVID, it’s also getting hard getting a hold of people and you’re scared to get mixed with other people.”

Read More: Survivor of B.C. residential school breaking silence and calling for action

Like Squinas, Lhtako Dene family support worker Terry Boucher also attended St. Joseph’s Mission located south of Williams Lake for 10-years.

Boucher said there was a lot of physical and sexual abuse from both the priests and nuns.

After leaving, she started drinking, trying to blackout much of what had happened to her.

“When I first started my healing, I would run out of the meetings,” Boucher said.

“I didn’t want to hear about it, and then I started to slowly, slowly go and start my healing journey.”

Boucher has been on her healing journey for several decades now and works towards helping families.

While budgets are often tight for programming, Boucher said she applies for any proposals and that they do run various workshops.

“We’re trying to get our people out from the alcohol, and we have some band members that are addicted,” she said.

“Intergenerational trauma continues, but once you start healing things get better a little bit at a time.”

On Monday mornings, there is typically sewing, and throughout the week, money permitting, other activities such as basket and moccasin making and beading. A men’s workshop on making dipnets has also been held, and Boucher said they are hoping to find someone to teach them how to craft snowshoes, although it is like a lost art.

Lhtako Dené Nation tries to hold at least two healing workshops throughout the year, often bringing healers like Johnson to their territory.

(Wiles files from Monica Lamb-Yorski)

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