Lloyd Myers, Rose Marie Quilt and Agnes Haller of Yunesit’in First Nation lost their 11-month-old sister Eileen Myers in the historic 1958 hospital fire at Tl’etinqox First Nation.
“I was working at Chilco Ranch on the irrigation they had installed when I saw the smoke,” said Lloyd. “It hit me hard. I have been trying to find closure.”
Quilt said she was only one year older than Eileen and had been in the hospital with pneumonia herself just prior to the fire.
“My parents picked me up and brought me home the day before,” she said, shaking her head.
The siblings attended an event in Tl’etinqox on Monday, May 23, to mark the anniversary of the tragedy and the launch of a research project that is underway to gather oral testimonies about the the impacts of the fire on the community.
Thomas Billyboy was 14 years old when his seven-month-old sister Lucy died in the fire.
“Today I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said as he fought back tears. “I’d given her a bottle and she was happy. Twenty minutes later I was out in the field and I could see black smoke coming from the building. I was the last person to see her.”
Lucy was also survived by her siblings William Billyboy, Patrick Billyboy, Tony Billyboy, Emily Dick and Matilda Quilt.
For the ceremony there was a head table in the school gym with displays from newspaper articles about the fire and 12 candles with name cards for each of the children that died.
Then included Earl Alphonse, 1, Lucy Billyboy, seven months, Ronny Cooper, 3, and Ronnie Jim, seven months, from Tl’etinqox, Susan Amut, 15 months old, Eileen Myers, 11 months old, and Roy Quilt, six months old, from Yunesi’tin and siblings Joan Case, 10 months old, Joyce Case, 2, and Julia Case, 4, and siblings Herbert Char, 1, and Marvin Char, 9, from Tsideldel.
Wendy Char was the only child that Sister Mary of the Cross was able to rescue.
Members of those communities participated in the ceremony to represent each one of the children and stood in a circle with a small fire burning in each of the four directions.
Tl’etinqox Coun. Cecil Grinders smudged all the people who stood in the circle.
Afterwards members of the women’s council draped colourful blankets over the shoulders of the family members.
Ashton Cooper handed out canned salmon for the family members to make a food offering in the fire and afterwards each family was given a bundle of sweet grass.
It was raining heavily but Melanie Johnny, Tl’etinqox councillor and member of the Tŝilhqot’in Ts’iqi Dechen Jedilhtan (Women’s Council) who led the ceremony, said she welcomed the rain as happy tears.
“The rain refreshes everything,” she said. “We pray for all of the people that were left behind, that they are healthy. It was devastating and lingered afterwards – even right up to today. We cannot talk about it without having tears in our eyes.”
Kristin Kozar and David McAtackney from the University of British Columbia Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre will be working alongside Tl’etinqox community member Karen Jim and Ashton Harry, Tl’etinqox Government executive director to gather the oral testimonies.
Jim said the hospital was built in 1941 by the federal government and operated by the Missionary Sisters of Christ the King who provided medical needs to people in Tl’etinqox and surrounding areas.
“This tragic event from 64 years ago has impacted the Tsilhqot’in Nation and is important to document for future generations to know this part of our history. It is by acknowledging and sharing our stories and what we know that we can move forward with healing.”
Jim said most of the elders who witnessed the fire are gone, but the stories they shared are remembered and the grief that remained.
“Some of you were young children that have memories that we can record,” she said. “For those who have agreed to be interviewed, I thank you.”
Anyone wanting to be interviewed that has not been contacted is encouraged to contact Jim at email@example.com.