When Alex Nelson was taken from his parents to live in a residential school in Alert Bay, he thought it was because his parents no longer loved him.
Nelson, who was seven years old at the time, and his older brother were given two brown suitcases and taken to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School one August. Upon arrival, their belongings were taken away and they were given new jackets, shoes, pyjamas, and socks.
Each day was a similar experience — boys and girls sat on separate sides of the classroom and were taught the basic school curriculum. Even though four of Nelson’s siblings were also in the school, they felt separated. The only opportunity they had to visit their parents came on holidays and Christmas.
“Even when we were there we felt separated. That family bonding and brotherhood and sisterhood wasn’t said,” Nelson said. “It’s the question of love and care. Where’s mom and dad? Maybe they don’t care and love me.”
Nelson was one of thousands of First Nations children taken from their families and put into residential schools across the country by the Canadian government between the 1870s and 1996. The government thought it was their responsibility to teach aboriginal children English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. Many were inadequately fed and housed, and were emotionally, physically and sexually abused.
Over the months, Nelson began to believe his parents no longer loved him and his feelings of isolation only grew deeper.
His only solace came from the soccer field next to the school. Any opportunity he had, Nelson would go to the field and play with his classmates and against students from other residential schools.
“To me it was more than that. It allowed me freedom to get away from the institute, the smell of it, the look of it, the authority of it. Just to be outside and the feeling of kicking a ball around and being with your peers,” Nelson said, adding he spent seven years at the school.
“Freedom is what we search for in life and this was one segment of it.”
After leaving St. Michael’s, Nelson’s passion for soccer never waned. He continued to play on the field and went on to coach the T-birds, a youth soccer club for urban aboriginal youth and children between the ages of five and 18.
In 2008, then prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for the residential school system and the Turth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was created to inform Canadians about what happened in residential schools.
In the spirit of reconciliation, Nelson and the T-birds are hosting the third annual Spirit of Reconciliation and Healing through Sport this weekend.
The event includes non-competitive co-ed soccer games, a parade, face painting, jewelry-making, a fish pond and an annual match between the soccer club and local clergy.
“It’s just the spirit of oneness. To recognize we do have the freedom to interact with one another and to understand the commonness. It’s an opportunity to get together and be one,” said Nelson, adding last year they saw 250 to 300 people and are expecting more this year.
“We feel like we’re walking with them in part of the sacred journey together,” said Archdecon Lon Towstego with the Anglican Church.
The Spirit of Reconciliation and Healing through Sport takes place on Saturday, July 9 at the Colville soccer field (the corner of Admirals and Colville roads) in Esquimalt from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free.
For more information visit aboriginalneighbours.org/tbirds.