Embrace culture in times of loss and grief, says Syilx mental health worker
Okanagan Nation Alliance crisis response workers share culturally-safe ways to support each other during this time of deep loss. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

Embrace culture in times of loss and grief, says Syilx mental health worker

‘We are grieving 215 deaths … I just pray we never have to do this again,’ says Kim Montgomery of ONA.

This article contains content about residential “schools” that may be triggering. A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866 925-4419. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.

Kim Montgomery and Charlotte Whitehead of the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) are embracing their culture and honouring grief protocols as sqilxw women as they strive to hold up a community steeped in grief. 

“We aren’t just feeling one death, we are feeling 215 deaths, 215 at the same time,” says Kim, in reference to the news about the children’s remains found on the former grounds of a church-run institution known as Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS).

“We have never done that as a people. I just pray we never have to do this again,” she tells IndigiNews. 

KIRS was run by the Roman Catholic Church from 1890 until 1969, when the federal government took over administration of the “school,” according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) at the University of British Columbia. It was closed in 1978.

On May 27, Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc announced that ground-penetrating radar had revealed the remains of 215 children on KIRS’ former grounds. These children were casualties of a genocidal system designed by the Canadian government to destroy Indigenous families. 

Under this system “an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were removed from their families, homes, languages, and lands” and placed in institutions, according to the IRSHDC. 

The ONA Okanagan Nation Response Team (ONRT) or Sәx kәnxit әlx (Those Who Help) is “a team of community members who have received extensive training in the areas of suicide education, community mobilization, and critical incident response.”

“Most of our team members have been affected by the findings so most of our team members are taking the time to process and take care of themselves,” says Charlotte, the team’s senior coordinator. 

The folks who are able to offer support are going into community to speak with people, smudging them down, and sending out information packages about self-care, she says. 

“It’s been pretty busy,” says Charlotte, who is a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

“When our community resources are triggered and they cannot respond to community then we’re in trouble,” she says. “There’s only so much we can do, which is why it needs to go back to the community.”

‘We have everything we need’

Kim is ONA’s mental health lead. She believes this is a monumental time for the Syilx people to recall their teachings and remember who they are.

“We have the skills in our communities to take care of our people,” she says, adding that in her mind ONRT was borne out of the Syilx people’s frustration with the inability of outsiders to provide culturally-appropriate care. 

“They don’t know us. They don’t know how we are when we’re grieving. They don’t know how to talk to us when we’re grieving.” 

ONRT was created to care for the grief of the Syilx people. Kim shares that it’s hard for people to trust in the old ways, in ceremony and the healing power it holds, due to the impacts of colonization. 

“We forget we have the timxw, we have ceremony, we have the sweat, we have the water, we have rose bush. We have all the things we do in our grief work. We can cut our hair. There are so many things we can do that help us that Kwulenchuten gave us — we have everything we need,” she says.

“You must believe that water is medicine. You have to believe those grandfather rocks have power. You have to believe that water can take your pain away. You have to believe that water can bless you. You have to believe that water is here to take care of you, and it’s alive,” Kim reminds the people.

It’s not just about how we care for one another, but also how we care for ourselves, she adds.

“Asking for help is courageous because then you are stronger for your family,” she says. 

“The only way we can get through this is by feeling, otherwise it will continue to show up through addictions, whether that be gambling, addiction, whatever addiction that is. 

“It’s going to hurt.”

‘They know we’re ready’

Kim says she believes the Ancestors wouldn’t have revealed themselves if they didn’t feel the people were ready. 

“There is a reason [the children] are showing themselves to us right now,” she says. 

“They know we’re ready right now and that we can take care of this … This is just another level of healing we have to do.”

She encourages people to trust in Kwulenchuten (Creator), to not “sit in the ‘why’ of it” or give power to the voice that says we’ll never get through this.

”Because we will. We always do. We have no choice other than to keep moving,” she shares with strength in her voice.

It’s also imperative that we remember those impacted by the effects of this, Kim shares.

“A lot of people are being triggered,” she says. “They don’t even need to have gone to residential school — they can see sadness around them, they can see their mom crying, they can see addictions rising around them. We can’t forget those ones.”

“I hear people speak of they never had a mom, they never had that, because they were so destroyed by the residential ‘school’ they were cheated out of parents, they were cheated out of grandparents,” she shares.

Remember who you are as Syilx people, she says, and reach out for help. 

“Feel it, move through it, be sad, be mad, be angry, but then take care of it — because we have work to do,” she says.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: IndigiNews used first names to refer to people in this story out of respect for residential “school” survivors. We understand that some survivors have negative associations with last names as a result of their use in these so-called residential “schools.”