I remember riding the ferry to Thetis Island as a kid. I would stand at the front of the boat on my tiptoes and count the jellyfish as they floated by. There were two huge tractor tires that hung from rusted chains off either side of the boat, used as buffers against the dock. I made a game of guessing which side of the boat would land first, so I could watch the gnarled tire grind and protest against the ferry landing.
Throughout my childhood, summer started with this rasping of old rubber and the smell of the creosote dock; three weeks of lazing in the sunshine, splashing in the ocean, and daily doses of ketchup chips and coca-cola.
Three years ago, my mom retired and moved to Thetis to live full-time. Since then, it has become something else to my family and I. Now there are dark winters to contend with; cold and constantly wet, but necessary for the newly installed rainwater collection system. There are occasionally long power outages, and keeping entropy and the encroaching rainforest in check is a full-time job. My mom named it Stella Maris when she moved here, and a few years ago, they replaced the tractor tires at the front of the ferry with shock absorbing rubber pads.
I’ve been living here for the past three months; building things and hanging out with my mom. We get along well, and on the average day, she is the only other human I come in contact with.
It’s a quiet, soggy existence out here on Thetis Island, but there is a lot to learn.
This morning, I cycled a road I’ve never been on before. After twenty years of coming to this island of 300 people, I am surprised to find that there are places I’ve never been. I road to Steph’s house, and together we drove to Duncan, on the big island, to witness a session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is tasked with exposing and sharing the experiences of those Canadian First Nations who spent time in Residential Schools. Paid for by the Canadian Government and administered by the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and United Churches, Residential Schools were used to Canadianize the Indians. First Nation children were taken from their families and made to live in a Christian-Canadian environment. Native languages, traditions and ceremonies were forbidden. It was said that the schools were meant to turn First Nations youth (and thus First Nations people general) into apples; red on the outside, white on the inside.
These schools were predictably the sites of unspeakable horrors. I’ve known about Residential Schools for a long time, most Canadians do, but I’d never heard first hand accounts of what happened in these places…
My maternal and paternal grandmothers were friends when they were little girls. They grew up together in Edmonton, graduated together, and started families. My maternal grandma and her new family moved to Vancouver, but remained close with my paternal grandma. In the early 1970s, both families bought property next to each other on Thetis.
Shortly thereafter, my grandfathers set to building homes on their respective vacation properties. My mom’s dad built a house that has since been sold, and my dad’s dad built a garage for his holiday trailer that would eventually be converted into a cabin, and then later christened as Stella Maris.
The Thetis Island ferry is called the MV Kuper, and it travels between Chemainus on Vancouver Island, Thetis and Penelakut; a First Nation reserve. I’ve been to the ferry landing at Penelakut hundreds of times, but have never left the boat. I don’t know if it’s allowed. I’m too young to remember this, but my mom recalls a time when, just down the road from the dock on Penelakut, where the tractor tires would squeal and grind against the ferry a dozen times a day, there loomed an imposing brick building, called the Kuper Island Residential School.
I sat in the The Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre in Duncan and listened to First Nations people, one after another, tell their stories of life in the Residential Schools. They were uniformly horrific.
One woman started her story years after her residential school experience, recalling when she was pregnant with her first child. She was terrified of having a girl. She had been sexually abused at school, and these occurrences were frequent enough in her young life that her brain was thus hardwired. Rapes and pedophilia had to some degree, normalized within her a twisted and horrifying version of male-female relationships. As a result, she wouldn’t let her husband near her new daughter, because of some deep and inextricable fear of what he might do to her. Her daughter grew up afraid, and with self loathing and sadness as her constant companions.
The survivors described how events like these, along with the coping mechanisms of alcohol and drug abuse, were sometimes perpetuated in their lives and their families, some of which are a generation or less removed from the schools.
Many of these brave and fragile storytellers weren’t much older than my parents, and many of their stories originated from Penelakut Island.
Sobs rippled around the room and I held my head in my hands, unable to fully process what I was listening to. I was plagued by the fact that while my grandfathers were building their vacation homes, while they happily carted bags of concrete to and fro, bronzing their skin in the summer sun, lives were being cut short and cut down just one island away. Penelakut has unsolved murders and unmarked graves.
I listened to stories like these until noon when we broke for lunch. I filled my plate with cheese and crackers and looked around me. A man who, moments earlier, had described having woman’s underwear shoved in his mouth and then being raped by a priest as a young man filled up his coffee cup.
I too like coffee, I mused.
I was having trouble making sense of the morning.
I hadn’t learned anything I didn’t already know, but the impact of being in the same room as those sharing their stories, and knowing that I would see some of them later that day on the ferry back home, was overwhelming. I would never have imagined that some of my neighbours bore so much sadness.
One Island away.
Twenty kilometres. The same country, another world.