Former student Archie Chantyman said the last time he visited the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School near Williams Lake the school building was still standing.
His first day at St. Joseph’s was on his sixth birthday, Sept. 5, 1968.
A member of Lhoosk’uz Dene Nation, 130 km west of Quesnel, Chantyman has been on a healing walk to the school site.
“I had not really thought of that until now that I started this on the same date that I went to residential school,” he said Tuesday, Sept. 19 at the Williams Lake Pow Wow Arbor where he and the other walkers in the group were being honoured with a ceremony.
Chantyman recalled his first day at residential school.
When he walked through the front doors that day he received an ‘unwelcome, welcome.’
“I was very confused. I didn’t know English.”
Students were issued a number, and called by that number not by name, he said.
“I believe mine was 126.”
He also remembered getting a hair cut and having religion imposed on him.
All of his siblings attended St. Joseph’s – an older brother, two sisters and a younger brother – and lots of people from Lhoosk’uz Dene Nation.
Chantyman was in residential school until 1977.
“I was moved around from residential school to residential school,” he said. “I went to Kamloops and Lejac because I had caused trouble in Williams Lake in the school yard and they moved me to Kamloops, then I caused trouble there and they shipped me to Lejac.”
After Lejac he went into foster care.
Most of his adult life he spent working in the bush and then got into security for 15 years.
“I was diagnosed with diabetes when my late mom had passed so now I just sell crafts. Things like earrings, key chains, drums and drum sticks.”
When asked what his favourite part of the walk has been, he said “taking breaks,” and laughed.
Walking also gives him peace of mind, he said.
“I believe our ancestors before us walked across the ice bridge and were nomads moving from one hunting ground to the next.”
Chantyman was bringing a rock to the site he will lay to rest at the former St. Joseph’s Mission site.
“I believe I put all my misery and heart into it,” he said.”
Around 100 people attended the ceremony Tuesday.
Former WLFN chief and member of the St. Joseph’s Investigation team, Nancy Sandy gave an opening prayer.
WLFN cultural coordinator David Archie led drumming and singing.
“Starting off with prayers, starting off with drums, being able to waken our spirits and souls is something we are continuing to get used to in our communities,” said WLFN Chief Willie Sellars.
He thanked Chantyman for having the courage to do the walk and bring different communities together.
There were half a dozen RCMP members in attendance from Williams Lake and Quesnel Indigenous Policing.
Quesnel Staff Sgt. Richard Weseen said members of his detachment escorted the walkers from Xat’sull First Nation to Williams Lake.
“I’m really glad Archie did this,” Weseen said.
The St. Joseph’s Mission investigation team were introduced by Sellars, followed by a blanketing of Chantyman, and the other walkers, his close friends Fred and Marilyn Clement, who are siblings, and Mateo Rojas, a youth community coordinator with Lhoosk’uz Dene Nation.
After the blanketing, former Esk’etemc Chief Charlene Belleau, one of the leaders of the SJM investigation team, invited all residential school survivors to join the walkers in a large semi-circle.
The survivors were presented with gifts and then greeted by everyone else one-on-one, many people sharing hugs.
On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the walk departed from the pow wow arbor toward the St. Joseph’s Mission site.