As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins gathering statements from former students of residential schools, Songhees band member Butch Dick will stand beside any family member who chooses to tell their story.
He won’t, however, tell his own.
“I’ve never brought it to my family because I feel I will just carry it on to another generation,” Dick says. “My children don’t need to know. They know that I went there, but they don’t need to know all the stories because they don’t need to carry that.”
Dick has not registered to speak, but has played a supporting role as a local planning committee member to the commission’s Victoria hearings, happening today (April 13) and tomorrow at the Victoria Conference Centre.
“This is happening in our home territory, and culturally we are bound to act as hosts,” he says. “If we stood back and let it happen without becoming involved then it would be wrong.”
His participation, however, doesn’t mean he’s fully bought in to the Commission’s work. “Why are they spending millions and millions on this Truth and Reconciliation?” Dick asks. “To make churches feel good? To make the general public aware? Or to actually help the people who have been through all this? It’s very unclear.”
He predicts only a handful of Songhees people will attend the conference, and fewer will speak. Most don’t want to be involved, he says. “They choose not to go back and revisit. It opens new wounds and sorrows and regret.”
Dick’s own memories of residential school are fuzzy, and they’re memories he doesn’t want to uncover.
He remembers some things, however, including being taken by the RCMP with his siblings when he was about seven.
“I remember being put on a train and put on a boat. We didn’t know where we were going, because we never travelled.”
They were brought to Kuper Island residential school, located on a Gulf Island a short ferry ride from Chemainus.
“We used to refer to it as ‘the rock,’ because it’s on an island, so once you got there you couldn’t get off,” he says.
Dick recalls no academic lessons, but the regimented routines surrounding dormitory living, haircuts and clothes, and Catholic traditions, stick with him. “One thing I do remember is praying a lot.” He also remembers being comforted in the evening, hearing the nuns singing.
After two years on Kuper Island, he was sent back Victoria to attend day school.
“I was deemed a runaway (at Kuper),” he recalls. “I didn’t run away. I would just hide, and my oldest brother, who is passed away now, would have to go and look for me. They got tired of looking for me and decided it was better for me to go home.”
He acknowledges, however, that not everybody had a bad experience.
“My older brother thought it was just great. That’s the danger. There’s not one common experience that you can point at, that you can use as an example of people’s experiences at residential school. Every person has a different story of how it may affect them.”
Five generations of Songhees people were sent to residential school. Dick’s mother was sent to a school on the mainland, though she never shared any stories about her experiences there. Despite being a fluent speaker of her traditional language, she wanted her children’s first language to be English.
“My mom said, ‘We have to live in a white community so we have to learn to speak English,’” Dick says. Speculating on her motivation, he adds, “The Indian part of you was beaten out of them, so why should I put my kids through that?”
Today, he continues to try to learn his traditional language, but admits it’s hard.
The Victoria conference marks the final event on Vancouver Island for the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held smaller events up Island in preceding weeks. “We call it the tsunami of sorrow,” says Dick.
“Healing,” he says, is just a buzzword.
“We look at it in our community as really just truth. Whether it’s going to reconcile anything is not something that we think can be accomplished. In our lifetime it will never happen.”
After the hearings wrap up Saturday, the Songhees nation will host an event it calls Gather Your Tears. While attendees can enjoy a meal, listen to drumming and relax, Dick emphasizes it’s not a celebration.
In Part 3 of series next week, we’ll offer recollections of residential school survivors and others who spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. The proceedings happen Friday (April 13) and Saturday at the Victoria Conference Centre and are open to the public.
Part 1 of the series: Victoria artist explores shared pain of residential schools, through art
Series introduction: Residential school survivors tell their truths in Victoria