The group was armed with tons of chalk, ready to decorate the sidewalk around a pond in Whitecourt, Alta.
Led by Sarah Letkeman, through the Rotary Club of Whitecourt, their goal was to sends messages of love and support in the wake of the discovery of the graves of 215 children at the former residential school in Kamloops.
Letkeman said that after seeing something similar in another community, she decided to do something in Whitecourt because the news of the graves weighed heavy on her heart.
“Having a stepson who is almost 13 and my son who is two, it’s heartbreaking to think about what the children went through.”
Since the Kamloops residential school graves came to light, more graves have been found elsewhere, including Brandon, Manitoba. Due to public outcry, several provincial leaders have announced they are putting money towards further testing, including Ontario and Alberta.
Letkeman said that encouraging people to be curious about the topic is essential.
“I hope that every person, Indigenous or not, can start exploring this subject from a place of genuine curiosity. We have to be more open-minded and try to drop those perspectives that have been learned. If you come at something with curiosity, there is no judgement. It is just exploratory, and you never know what you can find, both in yourself and in other people.”
Her brother, Blaine Letkeman, attended with his three daughters. H had recently taken one of his daughters to Kamloops to visit the residential school site.
“I was able to talk to a couple that was in the school when they were children. They met each other in there and got out and had a child of their own. They talked about how bad it was for them to be taken from their families and punished for doing things in the school,” explained Letkeman. He said that being there was overwhelming.
“My grandma was in residential school, and I have other family members that were too. My dad was drafted for the Edmonton Oilers. He ended up not going and drank himself to death because my grandma was totally against the white man. She was in residential school, and then they placed her on a reserve, and that was all she knew. When my dad went out of the reserve, she got scared and told him to come back. So, he went back and was dead by the time he was 42,” he explained.
“It’s unfortunate, but eventually, you have to draw the line. I have aunties and uncles that still suffer from alcoholism, and that is all part of this. It all stems from the residential schools. It’s ruined people’s lives because they don’t know anything else. My daughters and I will never know our language. I was not able to pass anything on to my daughters. It’s bad.”
Though the couple he spoke to in Kamloops had a happy story to share after their time at the residential school, the experience still left long-lasting marks.
“It ruined their families. A lot of people could not do anything even though they knew something was wrong. They ended up just drinking to try and forget about it. There is a lot of alcoholism, and it’s a tough chain to break. I’ve been sober ten years myself.”
He said that racism against Indigenous People isn’t as bad as it used to be but that the problem still exists. He also said that education is vital in helping move forward.
“That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to take my daughter with me to Kamloops. When I was a kid, my mom didn’t tell me anything about being Native and being proud to be Native. I’m happy to share this with my kids,” said Letkeman.
He said that Canada bringing in new cultures without dealing with the lost culture of Indigenous families is hurting many.
“Our country is letting all these other people in when we already have these people here that need help. Our natives, the Indigenous people, already here in this country, need our help from coast to coast. We are helping other people and not looking at what’s happening right here.”
Delores Gosselin attended the chalking event with her sister, Sharon Keyawasew. Their father is a residential school survivor.
“He spent ten years of his life in there, from age six to sixteen. He didn’t want to talk about it. When they started inquiring about the residential school with the survivors, and they were in the process of giving out money, he got one payment, and they wanted to interview him so he could get more money. They wanted him to talk about his experiences there, and he couldn’t. I had to translate for the lawyer in Cree, and when the lawyer asked me to ask my father to share his residential school experiences, all he did was stare straight across with big gobs of teardrops in his eyes. He couldn’t talk about it. So, that was the end of that.”
She said that alcohol caused the separation of her parents and that now her father lives in an extended-care home in Grande Prairie.
“We all grew up here in Whitecourt, and it was a great place to grow up. We didn’t know what living on a reserve was like. I do know a lot of people over 40, and most of us have parents that were in residential school. My mom wasn’t, but her mom was. Her parents died when she was eight years old, so she was taken to a convent and grew up there.”
Gosselin and Keyawasew said their father suffered from his experience and that it showed in how he parented. “He was demanding and aggressive. We didn’t know where that came from, but I’m assuming that came from his upbringing in residential school,” she explained.
Gosselin said people should try and imagine what it would have been like for a child in residential school.
“Try to feel what these kids must’ve felt. There was no love. They couldn’t see their parents,” she said. “We are all one people. We have the same colour blood. Our skin might be a different colour, but we all feel love, and we all feel hate. But love should outweigh hate.”