This article contains content about residential “schools” that may be triggering. IndigiNews is committed to trauma-informed ethical reporting, which involves taking time and care, self-location, transparency and creating safety plans for those who come forward with stories to share.
Steve Sxwithul’txw was cruising up Vancouver island from Victoria to Chemainus when he turned to face two of his three children and told them he feels an urgent need to share his life lessons — his triumphs and mistakes.
“They have so much to take in, and I feel like I have little time to do it,” says the 56-year-old father of two kids under 15 years-old and a 28 year-old daughter. “That’s always the challenge as a parent that has so much to pass on to their kids, right?”
Sxwithul’txw, who’s from the Penelakut tribe, recalls this moment while sitting in the front patio of his home in Cook Street Village in Victoria, B.C. as a warm midday sun streams in.
The apartment is one of a few places he and his family call home, including a private house on an isolated island off the coast of Chemainus, where Sxwithul’txw and his relatives once attended the former Kuper Island residential “school.”
Although he only attended the remote residential institution for a year in 1970, when he was five-years-old, it was an experience of “institutionalized life that was not a school,” he says he’ll never forget.
The only boy out of six children, Sxwithul’txw’s earliest memories are of life surrounded by his sisters and mother, until he was abruptly taken from home and forced to be apart from his siblings for the year. Two of his five siblings attended residential “school,” too, as well as Sxwithul’txw’s mother, aunties and uncles.
“It was traumatic for me, extremely lonely,” Sxwithul’txw says. “And that was intentional, to break the family cycle. I’ve had a lot of abandonment issues, trust issues … It was a human rights violation, genocide.”
Sxwithul’txw shares his story for educational purposes, he says, first and foremost with his kids, who are trying to make sense of what their father, grandmother, aunties and uncles went through and what it means for them in their lives.
The Kuper Island institution, which operated from 1889-1975, was destroyed by community members in the early 1980s, he says. The Penelakut tribe is currently investigating the number of bodies buried on the grounds, following a series of uncoverings on the sites of former residential institutions over the past year.
‘It’s a reckoning in the country’
Sxwithul’txw has worn many hats throughout his life — he’s worked as a cop, a reporter, a government worker with the ministry of health, and now he’s working as a self-employed filmmaker and television producer.
Since news about unmarked burial sites at former “schools” started gaining momentum over the past year, Sxwithul’txw says he’s received countless calls from producers, journalists — people with a new appetite to discuss the hidden truth about Canada, and perhaps a desire to do better.
Sxwithul’txw was in California when he got the news about the 215 bodies found at the former Kamloops residential institution, and from that moment on “it was just a barrage of media.”
“The fact that children were found puts things into perspectives for everyday Canadians,” Sxwithul’txw says. “I felt internally that I had to talk about it. This is something we’ve been saying long before [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission], for years, generations — so many Elders talking about ‘the bodies, the bodies, the bodies,’ and nobody listening, not even the police.”
This moment of awareness is a “reckoning in the country,” Sxwithultxw says.
“It’s good that people are finally realizing this happened. This isn’t anything we made up. Lives were lost, hundreds of thousands attended, the stripping of our culture and way of life occurred,” SSxwithul’txw says.
While it has been heartening to see a swell of support for Indigenous Peoples in seas of orange across the country, Sxwithultxw says, more needs to be done on the political level.
‘I want justice’
“On a public and social level, you see people waking up, showing up, buying orange, wearing orange, asking ‘What can I do?’ but on a political level, there’s still gaslighting happening,” Sxwithul’txw says. “I want justice, I want accountability. The RCMP is culpable. The churches are culpable. Why is nobody investigating?”
Sxwithul’txw wants to see a special prosecutor from outside of the country come and investigate Canada on these deaths.
“I want somebody in front of a judge,” he says.
Many people within communities know who some of the abusers of the time are, and nobody comes forward, he adds, “speaking from experience,” and that comes from an enforced cultural upbringing of silence and trauma.
“Not to speak about it at all, or else,” was the message, he says. “If you spoke about it, there were going to be serious repercussions.”
But now he wants to see the abusers held accountable, he says.
“Try them. Bring them forward. Put them through the justice system. We have no access to church records and files, which is intentional.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to whom he also provided his testimony, is “nowhere near enough” to a solution to the harm that has been caused through residential “schools” and other systems that restrict and oppress Indigenous Peoples, he says.
The last residential institution closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan. “So recent,” Sxwithul’txw says. It’s been called a “dark chapter in Canada’s history,” but that’s not accurate, he says, because the harm and injustice continues.
He wants to see people in positions of power who understand what has happened and the implications, he says, not people who continue to deny the experience of Indigenous Peoples, like Manitoba’s newly-appointed minister of reconciliation Alan Lagimodiere who was confronted by Wab Kinew, leader of Manitoba’s New Democratic Party, for downplaying residential “schools.”
“The residential school system was designed to take Indigenous children and give them the skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moved forward,” Lagimodiere said during his swearing into cabinet on July 15.
“I cannot accept you saying what you just said,” Kinew replied. “It was the expressed intent of residential schools to kill the Indian in the child. It is not cultural relativism, revisionist history, for us to say that was wrong. If you are to take your job seriously, you have to change that thinking.”
Lagiomodiere apologized the next day for his remarks and stated clearly that residential “schools” were indefensible genocide. But Sxwithul’txw says the remarks were a part of a larger problem in Canadian politics.
“I was aghast when I sat there and listened to that,” Sxwithul’txw says, referring to the minister’s comments. “You can’t put a person like that in charge of reconciliation when they have those kinds of views.”
We’re heading into a federal election, he adds, so it’s time to see who will stand behind the changes they say need to happen to make things right. But it’s not all up to the government, Sxwithul’txw says. People can take solutions into their own hands.
In May, Sxwithul’txw set up a GoFundMe page with his partner Michelle Mundy and friend Tom LaFortune, to support First Nations on Vancouver Island who want to do the work on their own territories on sites of former institutions.
“Here’s a residential school survivor raising money to find children, doing the government’s job,” SSxwithul’txw says.
The site has raised over $157,000 to date. $75,000 went to the Ahousaht First Nation to support their work, while another $77,000 went to the Snuneynuxw Nation in Nanaimo for the search of the former Nanaimo Indian Hospital, Sxwithul’txw says.
“We got hundreds of messages from non-Indigenous people saying, ‘We’re sick — we didn’t know anything,’” Sxwithul’txw says, adding that they’ve received a lot of messages from non-Indigenous people who want to do something to right this wrong — that some of them were perhaps only beginning to understand.
He says it feels like he’s been speaking up his whole life, but in many ways, he and others are only starting to be heard.
“Change is slowly happening, in all these multitudes of different areas in our society, and it’s sad that it’s taken this event for that to happen, but I’m hopeful,” he says.