Drew A. Penner/Echo Staff / Comox Valley Echo
Inter-cultural exchange to honour missing and murdered native women
When Comox Valley resident Dolores Pflanz started working at Kuper Island Residential School in 1969 she was excited to supervise native girls from Grades 1-4. The 19-year-old Caucasian high school grad was surprised to see how hesitant the children were to share their culture with her.
“I really liked to learn their language – it was fun,” she said. “They’d laugh at me because I couldn’t get my mouth around the words.”
But the native boarding students knew they would be in big trouble if they ever got caught. And Pflanz was in for a rude awakening, too – witnessing a nun give one of the children a severe beating.
“She would have been put in jail these days,” she said. “It just made me want to vomit.”
Now 65, Pflanz remembers a lot of things she wishes she didn’t from those days – including cultural, physical and sexual abuse. She also remembers Catholic Church officials protecting Brother Glenn William Doughty (who was finally convicted in 2002 of sex crimes involving students at the facility) when she tried to report a rape.
“I saw everything that you hear about,” she said. “As a young person I was just trying to work against all this and make their lives a little happier, but it was impossible. It was like trying to swim against Niagara Falls.”
No wonder the Comox Valley residents who went to Kuper Island (renamed Penelakut Island in 2010) – or residential schools in Alert Bay or Port Alberni – often won’t talk about their experiences. The scars of cultural assimilation run deep, as does the pain caused by the seemingly endless list of aboriginal women who have either been killed or vanished without a trace across the country.
K’ómoks First Nation is planning to host a massive art opening July 31 for a powerful exhibit, called Walking With Our Sisters, in honour of missing and murdered aboriginal women. It will include a special memorial for residential school children who never made it back home.
About 80 people attended a community conversation held Feb. 2 to kick off ambitious plans, such as opening the Big House, decorating the gym like a “blank slate” and providing support workers for those in need of special healing. The summer event will be the first presentation of Walking With Our Sisters in British Columbia, but local organizers hope the inter-cultural effort will set off a ripple that leads to a curative cross-country tidal wave.
“It’s so wonderful to see such big community support for something that is so important,” said KFN’s elected chief Rob Everson, greeting the people sitting in a giant circle inside the Band Hall gymnasium. “I know this summer when we gather together in this room it’s going to become something unbelievably special. I’m sure it’s going to touch not only the lives of the people in this room and not only the lives of this community – including the Comox Valley – it’s going to go out beyond that.”
The installation, features 1,763 pairs of colourful moccasin tops (known as vamps or uppers), to commemorate the more than 1,180 native women and girls who have been reported missing or have been murdered in the last 30 years in Canada.
“We’ve all – in this room I’m sure – had someone go missing or murdered or we have relatives who now are in prison; and it hurts us everyday,” Everson said. “I truly believe this is one of those steps that we as First Nations people and the greater community need to do to embrace and to support things like missing women and murdered women.”
During the event the KFN reserve will become a nexus of reflection and empowerment, as attendees move among cedar trees set up indoors to view the displays – including 108 pairs of children’s vamps created to draw attention to the victims of residential schools – however they feel most comfortable. No photography will be allowed and people will be able to do whatever they need in order to find solace.
The band is planning to set up a tent for large groups since people are expected to arrive from across the Island, the Great Vancouver Area – and even further afield.
“We don’t want anyone coming in and leaving without feeling like they’ve dealt with what they need to deal with,” said Lee Everson, the wife of the chief, who is serving as one of the organizers. “This whole gymnasium is going to be turned into an installation.”
The launch of Walking With Our Sisters in the Comox Valley will mark the culmination of a three-year bid process. As the concept grew from a small exhibit to a $20,000+ production, KFN enlisted the support of the local Metis association and the Comox Valley Transition Society.
“It’s an incredible honour to be involved with Walking With Our Sisters,” said Anne Davis, program coordinator with the Transition Society. “It really means a lot.”
While Davis has worked professionally with families who have suffered violence or lost one of their cherished native sisters, daughters or mothers, like everybody else involved she’s helping mount the art installation as an individual.
“I think it’s significant for all the people from different parts of the community who are coming together around this, including the K’ómoks First Nation and all the other aboriginal and Métis communities,” Davis said. “There is a huge problem in this country with what has happened to aboriginal women. We need to not just remember that and talk about it and learn from it, but we need to actually honour those women as well.”
The call has gone out for volunteers and there are plenty of roles to be filled.
“Now we need more help,” said I-Hos Gallery Manager Ramona Johnson. “We welcome everybody.”
Beyond the sacred bundles – the official gallery components – and the Big House protocols, there are endless possibilities to what could be created and the healing that can take place.
In the past people have even played the fiddle or the accordion while walking among the vamps.
“We’re going to touch the lives of so many people, because it’s time that people stood up for what’s right,” chief Everson said. “We know that this event is going to be a resounding success, and my hope is that there will be a little healing along the way for those people who need to be touched.”
The Comox Valley iteration of Walking With Our Sisters will also represent an intersection of culture, as the local band – steeped in Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish traditions – embraces a foreign toolkit to help affect important change here.
Elder Jackie Finnie prayed to the creator for strength and guidance to set things in motion.
“We have to make all our people proud right from one side of Canada to the other, from the farthest north to the south,” she said. “We are so strong in this. I see a very wonderful new way of thinking and supporting each other.”
Daryle Mills, an elder of Cree and Dene heritage, gave the West Coasters a sense of the significance of the sacred “bundles,” which will come from the territory of his people.
“The spirits of those women that were lost are in those bundles, I suspect,” he said. “You’re keeping their spirit in there. They’re coming here. That means their spirits are coming here too.”
But the Wachiay Friendship Centre youth worker also had a warning: take these art pieces seriously.
“The bundles that you speak about are very sacred – probably the most sacred thing that we have as a family, as a person and as a nation,” he said. “In the old days we believed that if a bundle was disturbed, or bothered or not handled correctly our nation could die. You have to take care of these things.”
KFN officials have been working closely with the Walking With Our Sisters team to do just that. After all, they want careful planning to result in life-altering experiences.
Elder Verna Flanders can’t wait for the healing she believes the installation will unleash.
She spent 10 years at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, a mental prison from which she has never fully escaped.
Flanders relayed a dream she had where the residential school had been reduced to a pile of bricks, with her standing on top.
“There are so many missing survivors that went there in all those years,” she said, describing the message that came to her for these forgotten souls. “You can fly. You’re not stuck in this hole anymore. You’re not stuck behind this brick anymore.”
That’s the sense of freedom she hopes the community will achieve as it honours residential school children alongside missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“I’m glad I’m here, and I’m glad I’m talking – because our survivors need to hear us,” she said. “I’ll be Walking With Our Sisters. Gila’kasla.”
-Please contact Ramona Johnson at the I-Hos Gallery or visit the local Walking With Our Sisters Facebook page if you are interested in volunteering
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