Sophie Pierre, former Chief of ?aq’am, Commissioner for the British Columbia Treaty Commission from 2009 to 2015 and recipient of the Order of Canada, came to Kimberley to speak to the Rotary Club on Wednesday, Aug. 4.
READ MORE: Sophie Pierre named to Order of Canada
Pierre told the crowd that while she certainly could give a speech on any of the topics that have been in international news lately pertaining to Canada’s Indigenous communities, she didn’t want to do that.
“You’re my neighbours,” Pierre said. “That’s how I see this opportunity, I want us to talk as neighbours.”
She said it was nice to come up to Kimberley and has fond memories of coming here as a child. She and her grandmother would walk from her home in Cherry Creek to the highway and hitchhike to Kimberley. Her grandmother didn’t speak much English, so Pierre served as her Ktunaxa-to-English interpreter.
She said she’s deeply grateful to her grandmother because, despite her nine years at residential school, she was able to maintain her connection to the Ktunaxa language.
“I became like the Avon lady for my grandmother and we’d go door to door and sell her beadwork and so I learned very early in life how to negotiate, so again that was thanks to my grandmother,” she said with a laugh.
Pierre, who came to Kimberley Rotary Club straight from a Traditional Knowledge and Language meeting earlier that day, spoke at length about the Ktunaxa’s history in this part of the world; their traditional place names, territories and movements and about the language itself, one of two isolate languages in Canada, the other being Haida.
“That type of teaching is not something that was passed on very naturally, because of the interruption that we had with the residential school,” she said. “We have all that history, we have a lot of that that is still held on to today. Much of it was interrupted, but not enough that we’ve lost it all. We still have a lot of that as Ktunaxa.”
Pierre also spoke about the long history of the St. Eugene Resort. When it shut down in 1970 it had been run as the Kootenay Indian Residential School for 60 years. It was turned over by the Oblates to the Federal government, who intended to turn it into a psychiatric care facility, a project that was abandoned after $750,000 was spent and much of the history of the building removed.
Pierre said the community had big plans for the building but quickly realized how difficult it is simply to maintain a building of that size, particularly when the pipes burst in the winter and flooded the basement, kicking off a period of deterioration.
The building then sat empty for 20 years, becoming more and more decrepit.
“It was during that time that there was more and more discussion,” Pierre said. “I don’t want to say realization, some people called it an awakening and it wasn’t, really it was more and more of a determination of recognizing and bringing forward our concerns that we had lost a lot as a people and that had been as a result of the residential school.”
Many of those discussions were centred around their language, and how they could protect their isolate language from extinction.
One of the Nation’s elders Mary Paul then said that if the community felt so much was lost in the St. Eugene Mission, it would be there they need to go to pick it back up.
“I mean this place was looking pretty bad,” Pierre said, “like the kids from Mount Baker used to go up there for Halloween to scare the hell out of each other it was in bad shape and she’s telling us that we had to go back in there, that the only way you really lose something is if you refuse to pick it up again.
“We thought, ‘okay she’s getting up in age, what’s she talking about? They probably say that about me now.’”
The decision was split as the generations who had gone to the school wanted it torn down, as they knew it as a horrible place where they were hurt, while the younger generations said, “It’s just a building.”
“It’s not going to create the healing that we think it’s going to create by knocking it down and secondly, like people say out of sight out of mind, if it’s out of your mind then it’s no longer a part of the story, of who we are.”
Eventually the decision was made and a long journey ensued, ultimately culminating in St. Eugene Resort, the premier tourist destination, historic site, championship golf course, hotel and casino that it is today.
“The most important part of that was the decision that we made as Ktunaxa people that we were going to do this, this was our decision and that we would reclaim it,” Pierre said. “It’s not something that some psychologist was going to help get over it, how do you get over something like that?
“None of us really get over our childhood, it’s our childhood. You grow up, but you grow up carrying what you experienced as a child.”
In her lifetime she’s seen a development from where her community’s parents and grandparents didn’t speak English and had little interaction with the others in their homeland, to now where they’re very much a part of it, and are one of the biggest economic drivers in the area.
“The main message that I want to leave with you, in taking something that was so negative in our past and turning it into something positive for our future generations, that was the decision that we made, and we’re very proud of that decision.”
READ MORE: Ktunaxa celebrate St. Eugene ownership
When she opened the floor up to questions, she was first asked of her own experience at residential school. Her mother brought her to the St. Eugene Mission at six-years-old in 1956. She said she’s often asked, “Your mother brought you? I thought children were taken away?”
“It’s an interesting situation because, my mother believed that what she was doing was the best thing, because she had two choices,” Pierre said. “She could bring me there or she could keep me at home until either a priest, the Indian agent, or the police came and picked me up.”
Pierre remembers initially feeling quite excited about going to school.
“I think quite honestly, I was more excited about the fact that my mother had bought me a new dress and new shoes. I was really quite happy about it. And I recall her bringing me there and it wasn’t until we got there and she turned me over to the nun.”
She remembers the nuns, the Sisters of Charity at that time, seeming scary all clad in black as they were. There were 150 children there, almost an even split of 75 boys and 75 girls. There were many siblings there, but they were forbidden to interact — extremely difficult, especially for little boys and girls who had big brothers or sisters they looked up to.
“I describe it as a lonely place for a child to grow up because every child needs reinforcement and encouragement,” Pierre said. “Every child needs a champion and when you grow up without that it’s hard to become that later on in life for your own children or for other children that are around you.”
The biggest impact residential schools had, Pierre said, is that they broke up families. Not just by removing the child from the home, but breaking down the structure of the families themselves.
She spoke about Truth and Reconciliation, and that without actually dealing with the truth, there can be no reconciliation.
“When all of a sudden Canadians were hit square between the eyes with just a little piece of the truth,” she said, referring to the discovery of unmarked graves at Canadian residential schools, “look what happened, look at the reaction.
“And that was just little tiny piece of the truth. It was a really gut wrenching piece of that truth, but that’s really what we need is we need to stop and we need to have that discussion on the truth and then we can carry on. And our children deserve that.”
She was also asked what those in attendance, as the ancestors of white settlers, can do to be better neighbours, as that was how Pierre began her talk, and Pierre said it’s something she’s often asked.
She said that trying to be aware and seeking truth, being supportive and encouraging governments to take action on things like curriculum and clean drinking water initiatives are things people can do.
However, she added that though they may not do it deliberately, Canadians can have a tendency to put the onus on their Indigenous neighbours to answer that question for them, but they need to be able to answer it themselves.
Pierre was able to speak at length on a wide variety of topics, her wisdom attained through her life and career experience combined with her warmth and sense of humour creating an environment that allowed people to ask and recieve answers to the tough questions they had.