Stories from Auntie on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

It takes a lot of strength and generosity for Indigenous people to talk about the impacts, trauma and grief of residential schools. On this day and beyond, it’s time to listen

Content warning: This story includes personal accounts and details about childrens’ experiences at Indian Residential Schools and Indian Day Schools. Support is made available to survivors and their families at the Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s crisis line at 1-866-925-4419.

My auntie, Shellene Paull, or Skwét7siya, made a pot of coffee and cut up fresh watermelon. She put out some grapes in a ceramic bowl. She smudged, prayed for strength for everyone and cleared papers from the kitchen table so we could sit and talk. She pushed aside books about Squamish history and Indigenous law, and binders of copies of land transactions, newspaper clippings and letters from the early 1900s, all pieces of our history and how we got here.

An orange T-shirt hung in the window, reading “Every Child Matters.”

Today is the first official National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Sept. 30 has been known as Orange Shirt Day since 2013, established by residential school survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad, but the day is receiving broader recognition after Ottawa introduced a paid day off for federal employees in the wake of about 1,800 unmarked graves verified at eight residential schools this year.

For many Indigenous folks, it may be a gentle day of rest or a day of advocacy, a day of family time or solitude. For non-Indigenous folks, it can be a day to take action, to become more educated or educate others and to redistribute wealth. 

For me, I wanted to sit down with Auntie Shellene, who went to Indian Day School and holds so much knowledge about our family history. I wanted to let her speak to what’s important as we remember all residential school survivors, intergenerational survivors and the relatives we lost, today and always.

Shellene Paull wears a dress that she and her mother, poses among trees
Auntie Shellene wears a dress that she and her mother created together featuring many small wooden paddles. Alia Youssef/The Narwhal

Auntie Shellene is very protective of her family, having grown up as the big sister to my mum and uncles. There’s a fabulous picture of her as a kid in white cat eye glasses, holding my mum as a baby in her arms. Her first car was a dune buggy; she’s an avid reader and she loves gardening and home renovations. 

She spent four years in Indian Day School. Like residential schools, they were places of abuse and attempted assimilation established by the Canadian government and churches.

Auntie Shellene visited Kamloops Residential School this summer. She said she was thinking of my granny, Lucille Kwináḵatemat Nicholson, and my great grandma, Eva Skwét7siya Lewis, who both went to residential school, along with many of our other relatives. 

“So many of our relatives endured the hardships of the gold rush and residential school and just the hardships of living. We grew up with all this history,” she told me at her kitchen table last week. 

“Grandmum taught us how to protect ourselves from the hardships she had learned.”

Did Granny talk much about going to residential school?

Because the school was just up the hill, [she and her sister] would come home on the weekends. She would start crying when she saw [her cousins] coming across the field because she knew they were going to come pick them up to go to school.

They would only say that my uncle had it really rough at boarding school. He died when he was in his 30s.

My middle name, Marie, comes from a young girl because my mum used to braid her hair. Every morning, everybody had to take care of somebody. But one day, she just didn’t show up. And nobody told my mum anything. No one ever spoke of her and Mum never knew what happened to her, but she just never came back. She always remembered her. So when I was born, she named me after the little girl she used to take care of.

It’s those kinds of events that shouldn’t happen at a school. No other schools have graveyards. No other schools basically beat the language out of the children, getting hot water thrown on them, getting their mouth washed out with soap and all the other horrible things that would have happened.

What about Great Grandma? 

She would have had to stay the whole time [not come home on the weekends]. I think they just chose not to talk about school. 

Her perspective was that the government was going to kill off the Squamish People. The whites, as she would say, didn’t want to look at our structures, because they called us an “eyesore.”

Auntie Shellene spoke about Sen̓áḵw, a Squamish village that stood in the present-day trendy Kitsilano neighbourhood. The city and provincial government forcibly removed our ancestors in 1913 to expand the city, putting them on a barge to the present-day District of Squamish. At the same time, children were being taken away to schools and traditional ways of life were being oppressed and outlawed. In 2002 the Squamish Nation won back some of its Kitsilano land in court, and is currently planning what could be the biggest urban Indigenous housing development in the country.

The alienation of Kitsilano lands describes in detail how we were relocated because they wanted to use the land in a different way. My grandpa was just a toddler when he was removed from Sen̓áḵw. They set the homes on fire when [the Squamish people] left. They were put on a barge without explanation. They were watching their homes being torched as they were leaving.

The tugboat pulling the barge cut the rope, and they thought they were drifting out to sea. Another tugboat came and reattached, that was mariner’s practice, but they didn’t know that and they thought they were just drifting.

When you look at residential schools and the quality of life, you can’t help but to notice the impoverished levels that many were living under. My mum and them grew up rather poor, and our grand-uncle used to get them day-old fruit.

Hunting and fishing measures were changing. A relative [Dominic Charlie] was charged with fishing with a traditional hook and First Nations were banned from hiring lawyers. You had logging happening everywhere. Our family was starting to understand the oppressive measures that were taking place. Our quality of life, everything started to diminish.

My gran would say we’ve revived the language, we built the church, we did what we had to do to survive.

They put all the hymns in our language, to preserve the language. Like, ‘Let’s just integrate this and try to keep our language alive, even though they banned us from speaking it.’

Shellene Paull stands outside a Squamish Nation social programs building
A Squamish Nation social programs building sits around the corner from Auntie Shellene’s home on the Squamish Nation’s Mission Indian Reserve No. 1. Photo: Alia Youssef / The Narwhal

What about when you were a kid on reserve?

I wasn’t allowed off the reserve. I think I might have shared this with you once, I was down by the church once and these German people pulled up to me. And they said, “Where are the Indians?” And I put my hands up and I said, “Well, I am one.”
And they said, “The Indians with the feathers and the horses, you silly kid.” And they got in their car and drove. I was eight or seven and was like ‘oh, okay then.’ [Laughs.]

I don’t know how much you want to get into it, but there was also your time at day school?

Yeah. From Grade 1 to Grade 4, I went to St. Paul’s Indian Day School. I think other people had it harder, like my brother.

What happened to our kids, that shouldn’t happen to them … it’s just … things you endured. And you just, you didn’t fight it. 

At school, we didn’t learn a whole lot. The thing I remember is marching around the desks when they would play the Canadian anthem.  It was like, ‘Oh, this is stupid.’ Basically they were trying to tell us to be like little cadets in school.

I always tease people: “You want to be mean to me? I can get mean right back to you because I went to school with nuns.” You cross them, they’d get their big three-foot ruler and they’d cap you. They wouldn’t think twice about it. It was really arbitrary, really authoritarian, really irrational.

One of my cousins, he would get the strap often because he just wouldn’t back down from them. So, as I was going up [to get strapped], I was tearing up and he looked at me and he said: 

“And we don’t cry.” 

She made me put my hand out and I thought, ‘I’m not crying.’ But I pulled my hand back, and she gave me extra straps for pulling my hand away.

It was militant. That’s probably the best way to describe it.

You’ve also talked about connecting to culture and land more later on. I’m wondering how your relationship with the land has evolved through your life. 

My knowledge of the land came from sleeping with Grandmum. We didn’t read books, she told us stories. 

Our family [member] Hakstn [which has also been spelled Huxten and Haxten], who also carried the name Skwét7siya, saw the first non-Squamish man, and she died in 1940. She had so much knowledge. Hakstn was quoted as an oral history person, she was the go-to person for men, and that didn’t happen often. But they would refer to her because she had so much knowledge. In Conversations with Khahtsahlano, [the Chief and historian] would go talk to Skwét7siya/Hakstn. She passed that down to Grandmum, and Grandmum passed it down to us.

I’d hear stories about protecting the land, about harvesting clay from Second Beach [in Stanley Park]. Great-Grandma used to paddle to Second Beach, going through a tidal pool that was filled in to become the causeway. She would use it to make blankets white. There was only one source, but now it’s hidden under Second Beach Pool. Our grand-uncle used to carry deer down from Grouse Mountain down a wagon trail that went to Squamish. 

We use land for community, for commercial, for residential. But we see it all as one. We don’t believe in, ‘You put up a fence and it’s yours.’ We have a more communal sense of it.

We have four per cent of our land … my perspective is, we’ve got a very little base left, so let’s protect it.

This is coming out on Truth and Reconciliation day. What do you want people to take away from your story?

I think respect and understanding is paramount in building stronger relations. 

When people say we should just get over it … the number of people that [nuns and priests] terrorized in their lifetime, they’ve never really been held accountable for it. If it were First Nations being charged with something like this, the book would get thrown at them, big time.

It’s hard to say that there’s morality in the government’s intentions [for reconciliation]. They’re lacking in justice. They give a lot of rhetoric and lip service, but it’s empty promises.

Justice is something that, in theory, is out there. But it’s a real challenge when you try to look for justice.

Do you have any final thoughts to share?

A lot of people just want to focus on the negative and regurgitate all the atrocities. But this narrative focuses on the survival techniques adapted by our maternal side of the family. 

What we’re trying to talk about is Mum and Grandmum and how they survived there.

All my relations.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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