Walking toward reconciliation

Sunday, we joined about 200 community members in Powell River on a reconciliation walk organized by the hɛhɛšin movement.* The walk, honouring the children of residential schools, began at Willingdon Beach and ended at the Westview wharf. Other participants were there to remember missing and murdered Indigenous women. All were there to take steps on a path that will bring us all to a greater understanding of and respect for Tla’amin and other Indigenous traditions.

Standing on the grass at the beach where my mother used to swim when she was a child, where she brought us when we were children, and where my own sons and grandson have played on family visits connected me to this place I am learning once again to call home.

It was just over a year ago when we still lived in Smithers that our publishing company, Creekstone Press, celebrated the launch of Shared Histories by Tyler McCreary with the Walk to Witset. Shared Histories detailed the history of Witsuwit’en life in Smithers and placed the racism they faced in a provincial and national context, one that applies to the Tla’amin people and Powell River as well. Smithers was a railway town; Powell River a paper mill town. In the early 1900s, each corporation planted a townsite on Indigenous territory without consultation or accommodation. Many of the subsequent settlers and their elected representatives took concrete steps to exclude the land’s original owners from the new communities.

The committee of Witsuwit’en elders and Smithers’ settlers who contributed to Shared Histories wanted to host a book launch that truly marked the process of truth and reconciliation. The book itself detailed some of the truth Smithers’ residents needed to discover, and the walk became a symbolic journey of reconciliation. Smithers’ then mayor Taylor Bachrach and Witset’s chief councilor Misilos Victor Jim joined dozens of others to walked the entire 34 km of Highway 16 that links the communities. The balhats or feast that welcomed them to Witset served over 400 people, more than half non-Indigenous. The book went on to win the BC Historical Federation’s 2019 prize for historical writing.

At Willingdon Beach, Rose Henry began by gathering the children around her to sing a song honouring them as ancestors, explaining that the Tla’amin believe (as do the Witsuwit’en) that children are their elders come back.

Cyndi Pallen (čƖnɛ) spoke about the origins of the walk, how members of the non-Indigenous community reached out to continue the work of bridging the gap between communities. John Louie (yaxwum) blessed the gathering with a prayer in Tla’amin reminding us that children in residential school were beaten for using their language: he asked that we all pray in our own way and respect the way others pray.

Along the route, we stopped to hear a woman’s warrior song, we sang together as we walked, and the group finally gathered at the Westview wharf, beside the Comox and Texada ferry terminal. I remember the wharf as an intimidating landmark for my younger self; it rises high out of the water and older kids fished off it, the braver ones jumped off it. For many Tla’amin children, John Louie told us, it was a place of great pain, the place where they were put on the boat that took them to residential school.

Walking and singing together lifted our spirits. We are beginning to recognize faces, to remember names. Our new home has every right to be proud of its efforts** to build connections between its communities and we are honoured to join in those efforts.

* hɛhɛšin is an ongoing grassroots reconciliation movement that started with a mixed group of non-indigenous people from the Upper Sunshine Coast, that wanted to reach out and connect with the indigenous people of this land, by honoring the teachings and territory of the Tla’amin people.

** Check out the 2011 presentation made to the BC Treaty Commission, the Powell River-Sliammon Experience.