This article contains content about residential “schools” that may be triggering. Kelsie Kilawna is a syilx reporter who’s committed to syilx storytelling protocol and trauma-informed, ethical reporting — which involves taking time and care, self-location, transparency and safety care plans for those who come forward with stories to share.
Ashley Michel had the chance to speak her mind to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday in her home community of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc — known to many as Kamloops, B.C.
She tells IndigiNews that she spent the night before collecting her thoughts.
“Mr. Trudeau, there is a lot I want to say, but you do not know me. I need you to listen. I want you to hear my voice,” she began to write.
Michel is a Secwépemc woman, mother, entrepreneur and student. On Oct. 18, she delivered her speech to the prime minister before a crowd of attendees and media representatives gathered at the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Powwow Arbour.
“My heart aches for the mothers who never got to see their babies again. My heart aches for the children who were scared and lonely and just wanted to go home but didn’t make it. My heart aches for the children who were robbed of their childhood, culture, language, and traditions — some of whom are sitting around you here today,” she said.
Trudeau’s visit to Secwépemc territory came after he declined to accept an earlier invitation to join the community in ceremony on Sept. 30 for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Kúkpi7 Roseanne Casimir, chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, says she sent two invitations to Trudeau. Instead, as widely reported, he chose to spend the day on vacation with his family in the Ha-Hoothlee (traditional lands) of the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, in so-called Tofino, B.C.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here on September 30. It was a mistake and I understand it made a difficult day even harder,” Trudeau told the crowd on Monday. “You didn’t have to invite me back. I know that. Thank you for doing so.”
On May 27, Casimir shared with the world what was already known to many Indigenous Peoples, that ground-penetrating radar had confirmed the existence of 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the so-called Kamloops Indian Residential School.
It was the first in a succession of heartbreaking uncoverings of unmarked children’s graves on the sites of former church and government-run institutions — which masqueraded as “schools” for Indigenous children — across the country.
Michel says she prepared to deliver her message to the prime minister by listening to her favourite powwow music. She wore an orange shirt for hope and a ribbon skirt for strength.
As she spoke, an eagle flew above her, she says, and when she finished, she turned to her family’s embrace.
This is what she said:
“Mr. Trudeau, there’s a lot I want to say, but you don’t know me. My voice may shake a little … I need you to listen, and I want you to hear my voice.
My name is Ashley. I am a proud Indigenous Mother and I come from a long line of strong, independent, successful, Secwépemc women.
I am hurting. My heart aches for the mothers who never got to see their babies again. My heart aches for the children who were scared and lonely and just wanted to go home but didn’t make it. My heart aches for the children who were robbed of their childhood, culture, language, and traditions — some of whom are sitting around you here today.
Because of what happened, because of residential schools and the forced assimilation, colonization, and genocide of our people on Turtle Island, I am mourning for our language, culture, and traditions that I am so desperately trying to reclaim and teach my daughter before it’s too late.
I want a good life and future for her and the future generations to come. A good future means a life where she is not grieving, where she is not triggered. Our kids do not need to feel this pain and it stops with my generation.
I want our children to have a future where their voice is heard. Where they don’t have to worry about being another statistic. Where our people are safe and MMIWG2S is no more, where our children have clean drinking water. Where they don’t have to defend their sacred traditional land. Where our children are not removed from their families and communities and placed in care. Where Indigenous mothers can have their babies peacefully, without worrying if their newborn child will be taken away. Where our children can successfully walk in two worlds and practice our culture, tradition, language and have healing.
After everything, our babies — the missing — deserve to be found, identified and brought home. Our children deserve a good future and our families deserve peace.
So how do we get there? We need more than words and broken promises, Mr. Trudeau. We need action, we need justice and we need accountability. Listen and learn from our elders and survivors while they’re still here. Ask for their knowledge and advice to move us on a path forward.
Use your power and privilege for good. And make this visit count.”
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. Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society aims to provide a “non-judgmental approach to listening and problem-solving.” The crisis line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-588-8717 or go to kuu-uscrisisline.com. KUU-US means “people” in Nuu-chah-nulth.
Editor’s note, Oct. 22, 2021: the transcript at the bottom of the story (of Ashley Michel’s speech) was incomplete when first published, and has since been corrected.