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Memories of Kuper Island residential school plants seeds of legacy

Clinton Charlie says art like the play Sisters can serve as part of the residential school healing process. - Peter W. Rusland
Clinton Charlie says art like the play Sisters can serve as part of the residential school healing process.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland

Sisters was far too familiar to Clinton Charlie.

He  suspected the starkly dramatic play, staged by student actors at Duncan's Mercury Theatre last month, would evoke disturbing stories he'd heard from his parents.

They survived policy-fed punishments in Canada's residential schools on Kuper (now Penelakut) Island and in Mission — and their trauma took a latent toll on their families.

So he drummed and sang Cowichan's Paddle Song before pathetic show. It set a mood of friendship toward helping his people heal by reclaiming their culture attacked by Ottawa.

"I want to bring back the old teachings," he said.

Charlie also wants to use proceeds from a T-shirt legacy fund he started (call 250-732-8771 for information) to buy and plant fruit trees this summer at Penelakut's former school site. He heard from a relative who attended the school that they were often fed rotten food and fruit.

"She told me 'All my late husband wanted was fresh fruit.'"

All proceeds from Sisters are also going to that same legacy project, something Sisters director Mike Moroz has wanted to see happen since launching the project last year.

But that isn't the only way Sisters made an impact on Charlie.

"It felt so realistic, you could almost feel being in there," he said after seeing eerie effects a Maritime, nun-run, residential school had on the play's students and staff. "It was exactly like the sisters I heard about growing up."

That grim legacy led to issues in Charlie's family life growing up.

"We were disciplined the same way they got in residential school," Charlie said.

In turn, Charlie also turned to booze to escape a cruel cycle initially fed by the federal residential-school system — aimed at assimilating First Nations' culture.

"I drank from age 17 to 26; I wasted a lot of years.

But Charlie, 38, slowly came to grips with his addiction — shaking it a decade ago, as he watched Native suicide rates climb.

"I'm 10 ½ years sober and want to help my community," the Cowichan Tribes member and UBC education co-ordinator said. "It's all been swept under the carpet for such a long time, but we want to educate people about it.

Charlie wants the truth about those schools told through theatre arts, and other means, to complement painful stories related during Canada's traveling Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.

"Lots of people won't talk about it, but our people need to hear what our older people went through; it's our history."

But it's a past his parents — especially his father — wish to forget. Charlie doubted his dad would have watched Sisters. Many of his relatives also declined to attend the TRC hearings.

"This (social trauma) affects us on a daily basis. Ninety percent of my family members didn't even want to go to it (TRC); it's a part of our history they don't want to relive," he said.

And mere money won't erase bitter memories, he explained.

"We have to start focusing on our education, language and culture, and instill our pride again. It's about healing, and working as one."

Sisters' director Mike Moroz and his cast have been invited to perform their play at the closing Truth and Reconciliation Conference in Ottawa in June 2015.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation has also invited his Neighbourhood Players to stage Sisters in Kamloops in August, at the union's annual summer conference, and in schools in Vancouver and Edmonton.

Answers were pending funding and cast availability.

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