Imagine a police officer and government official arriving at your door, unannounced, and taking away your children.
Imagine they took every child in the neighbourhood — an entire community of children removed to residential schools.
There, these children, some as young as four, are separated from their siblings and stripped of their clothing, heads often shaved, and they are scrubbed down with wire brushes.
They’re told not to speak their native language and are given a new English name or more commonly just a number.
It seems shocking, but it’s the ugly truth of Canada’s history.
An estimated 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and forced to live at one of the 130 residential schools across the country. More than 5,000 children never made it home, often being buried in unmarked graves.
The schools were conceived by the Canadian government and run by several religious organizations, including the Catholic, United and Anglican churches. Sexual and physical abuse, torture and mistreatment were widespread.
The goal of the Canadian government was to ‘take the Indian out of the child.’
“Many non-Aboriginal Canadians say, ‘it happened so long ago, why can’t they just get over it?” said former Langley school trustee Cecelia Reekie.
“The last residential school closed in 1996, not that long ago.”
“There were up to seven generations of children who attended these residential schools. It will take a long time to heal,” said Reekie, an inter-generational survivor, who has been on her own journey recently as a cultural presenter, sharing the truths about residential schools told through her dad’s life. He is a survivor of a residential school.
“This is my passion. This is what I’m meant to do, and I have the support of my dad,” said Reekie who has spoken to thousands of students and educators across Metro Vancouver in the past few months.
Reekie is hopeful about what she is seeing in Canada around Aboriginal culture and is doing her part to continue building on that momentum by creating a weekend-long event in Langley called “Working Toward Reconciliation.” It will take place from Feb. 19 to 21.
Reekie was adopted as a baby into a non-Aboriginal home, her mom was a teacher and her dad a minister in the United Church.
It wasn’t until she held her first child in her arms that she had a biological connection to another human being. It triggered a desire to know her birth parents.
She started searching and found her dad, a residential school survivor who had suffered abuse.
In 2013 her father attended the National Gathering in Vancouver where he testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, having his story recorded into Canadian history.
“His parents had no warning he would be taken away. Imagine not being able to go home for four years?” Reekie said. “He was given the strap in front of everyone for being caught speaking his language, the only one he knew.”
Reekie left politics to begin sharing the sad history of residential schools from her perspective.
In the past few months, she has spoken at dozens of Langley, Surrey and Delta schools, sharing her father’s experience.
Now Reekie has decided to take her outreach one step further, to the community at large, and hopes the residents of Langley will get a chance to engage with each other as “we all begin a journey toward reconciliation,” she said.
Next weekend seemed the perfect fit.
Given that Langley school district is on a Pro-D Day on Feb. 19 for educators to talk about reconciliation and gain a better understanding of Aboriginal history, Reekie wanted to create an event with the same theme.
“It doesn’t make sense to just have educators and students learn about it. We need the whole community to learn,” said Reekie.
She got a committee together and they decided to ‘dream big,’ said Dawne Edwards, a Langley teacher.
“Cecelia is throwing the rock, and causing that ripple. I’m excited to be part of it and committing to leaving this world a better place for our grandchildren,” said Edwards.
Working Toward Reconciliation begins Friday night with a reading from Wab Kinew, author of The Reason You Walk: A Memoir. In 2012, Kinew hosted the acclaimed CBC documentary series 8th Fire.
He has a Masters degree in Indigenous governance and is also an Honourary Witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. He is now running for the NDP in Manitoba, his home province.
Already, more than 250 tickets have been sold for Friday night’s reading at Yorkson Creek Middle School, 20686 84 Ave.
Kinew returns on Saturday, Feb. 20 as the keynote speaker at ‘A Community Day of Reconciliation,’ held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Yorkson Creek Middle School. This free event will be a day of sharing, listening, learning, understanding and celebrating, said Reekie.
Doors open at 10 a.m. and a welcoming will begin at 10:30 a.m.
Kinew will provide the keynote at 11 a.m., followed by a panel presentation.
Reekie has also brought the large pillar exhibit ‘100 Years of Loss’ to the gym at Yorkson. The exhibit is comprised of pillars bearing historic photos, survivors stories and more.
There will also be drumming, arts and crafts and exhibits for people to take part in, including offering a message to survivors and creating a tile as part of the Project of Heart. The 2016 orange shirts with the new design will be available for purchase.
Parking is extremely limited at the event site so people are asked to park at Mountain Secondary School (7755 202A St. ) where shuttle buses will transport attendees to both events.
Reekie points out that students are going to be coming home talking about the history of residential schools and this is a perfect opportunity for parents and families to come and learn about this history.
On Sunday, Feb. 21, there will be an inter-faith ceremony of healing and reconciliation at the United Churches of Langley (21562 Old Yale Rd.) at 6:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome.
The United and Anglican Churches have apologized for their role and are taking an active approach to reconciliation. It’s an important component, given the part they played in residential schools, said Reekie.
“Starting in Grade 5, the history of residential schools is part of the curriculum so this is a safe place for parents to learn about it,” Reekie said of Saturday’s community event at Yorkson Middle School.
“My vision (for Saturday) is for people to connect and continue the conversation. This is the first step,” she said.
For Edwards, “there can’t be change until there is understanding and empathy and figuring out what all our roles are in this.”
There is still a sentiment of ‘us and them’ in Canada, said Reekie. That needs to change.
Reekie doesn’t like to come from a place of anger or blame. That isn’t going to work, she said.
But she also said a lot of hurt has taken place and everyone must respect that healing will take a long time.
“I think there is huge momentum right now. I think individuals are thinking differently and First Nations are finding their rightful place in all of it,” said Reekie.
To RSVP for Friday, purchase Kinew’s book or for more information visit eventbrite.ca.
On Saturday, shuttle buses will be going all day, so people can come and go.