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‘Fractures our spirit all over again’

Residential school survivor Willie Blackwater still looking for reconciliation.
Willie Blackwater. Contributed photo

A Gitxsan man is calling on all levels of government to do better when it comes to healing the wounds left by the residential school system.

Willie Blackwater feels he and other victims have been left out of the reconciliation process.

This comes after he was invited to the opening of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre in Vancouver on April 9, but organizers of the event wouldn’t pay for his travel expenses or allow him to speak. This event also included a statement of apology for UBC’s involvement in the system that supported the operation of the Indian Residential Schools.

“They were all excited for me to come until it came to covering my travel expenses and they told me it wasn’t in their budget. What do you mean, it isn’t in your budget? It is a multi-million dollar centre you opened and since the residential school court case billions of dollars have been spent on this and that,” he said.

“The world is seeing this and that happening but the world doesn’t know why it is happening. It was us that went to court and we aren’t even acknowledged.”

An organizer of the event and senior advisor to the president on Aboriginal Affairs at UBC Linc Kesler said they had survivors coming from all over the province and couldn’t afford to pay for everyone’s travel and didn’t feel it would be fair to only pay for one person.

“I understand how important Chief Blackwater is to the history and I really respect him. I hoped he would come,” he said. “I did mention to him that if he wished to come over another occasion to work with us and record his story and make that kind of contribution, under those circumstances we can pay for him to come.”

They already had a list of speakers set before Blackwater offered to be a speaker.

“We did our best to show him the respect he deserves and accommodate him the best we were able. We understand he was disappointed we couldn’t pay for his expenses. He wanted to come with a group of people and that would have been a significant expense, and we just weren’t able to do that,” he added. “But of course we respect him and want to work with him and hope he considers doing that in the future.”

Kesler said the event was full of other residential school survivors.

Blackwater was raised by his grandparents in Kispiox and described his early childhood as fantastic.

He was then sent at the age of 10 to the Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island which was run by the United Church after his grandmother was sent to the hospital. It was there that he suffered physical and sexual abuse. He spent eight years there.

It took several years but Blackwater spoke out about the abuse and the former school dormitory supervisor Arthur Plint pleaded guilty in 1995 to 18 counts of indecent assault dating from 1948 to 1953 and from 1963 to 1968. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison at the age of 77 and has since died.

The court case known as The Alberni Residential School Case: Blackwater v Plint was brought to the Supreme Court by several former students of that school to claim compensation for the abuse they experienced there after Plint pleaded guilty. The group sued the federal government and the United Church saying they should have known the abuse was going on. The case took many years and had several twists and turns but in the end it found the federal government was 75 per cent liable and the church was 25 per cent responsible.

According to Blackwater, none of the plaintiffs from the court case have ever been asked to speak at reconciliation event or been acknowledged for stepping forward.

“We battled the government and the United Church and we won. No one thought we had a chance in hell. Agreements have been made [since then] but they don’t say where those agreements came from, which was the Blackwater court case. Everything revolved around the Blackwater case … nothing would have come to be if they didn’t have a solid foundation to work from.”

Blackwater also pushed for the United Church and the federal government to admit their involvement and be accountable for their wrongdoings. He was able to go to Ottawa in 2008 to hear then Prime Minister Stephen Harper make a statement of apology to former students of the Indian Residential School Schools, on behalf of the Government of Canada.

However, Blackwater said he was promised all the Blackwater plaintiffs and all legal representatives from all parties involved would be brought together at a national event for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but that never happened.

He said he’s continuously been given false hope and broken promises.

“There have been individuals that have benefited immensely from our process but none of us have been asked to be in an advisory position, so it takes away from what we did and what we did was blow the doors wide open on the government and the United Church and other government systems to bring forth Indian Residential School issues and reconciliation. Those things wouldn’t have a foundation of meaning if it weren’t for our court case,” he added.

Blackwater has been doing a lot of healing but he’s frustrated with how things are playing out now with governments trying to reconcile the wrongdoings.

‘“It is just like the residential school system all over again, being used and abused,” he said. “They just use us to get where they are.”

Two plaintiffs died during the Blackwater v Plint court case and Blackwater said he’s fighting for justice for their families.

“It is about our spirit being taken away,” he said. “The spirit had been broken at the school and we got part of it back when we won the court case, but neglecting us now when other people are being acknowledged … that fractures our spirit all over again.”

Marisca Bakker

About the Author: Marisca Bakker

Marisca was born and raised in Ontario and moved to Smithers almost ten years ago on a one-year contract.
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