Gone but never forgotten
- Kerry Benjoe | August 28, 2023
The Thunderchild Indian Residential School may have closed 75 years ago but the descendants of former students won’t let them be forgotten.
“We’re trying to create that awareness within our community by remembering and honouring our ancestors,” said Sonia Pete one of the organizers of the Honouring Survivors and Students of Thunderchild (St. Henri/Delmas) Walk.
Having attended a residential school herself, she feels a sense of responsibility to carry the history forward.
The school was destroyed by fire in 1948.
Today, all that remains are the remnants the school’s courtyard fountain and the stories passed down from the survivors.
“We’re trying to honour all students that attended not only … Thunderchild Residential School, but all survivors,” she said. “There’s elders today that are still with us that were in these schools. And there’s a lot of students that didn’t make it home. So, we want to remember those students, and we want to honour them. We want them to know that we know they were there.”
Pete says every First Nation person in Canada has been impacted by residential schools in one way or another and the intergenerational trauma still experienced today needs to be addressed.
“There is hope we can heal,” she said. “We can heal and make stronger communities.”
Pete said the idea for the walk developed shortly after the Kamloops Indian Residential School’s discovery of 215 unmarked graves.
Members of the Little Pine community gathered and together they decided it was time to raise awareness about the Delmas Residential School because if they didn’t an important part of their history would be lost.
For generations stories about the school circulated among families, but with no remnants left of the building the public has no idea the school existed.
This does not sit well with Pete and other members of the volunteer committee.
“We would love to see a monument of some sort on the property because if you go to the property, you can kind of still see where the school was,” she said.
“If it’s something we can do, we will definitely try our best to get that done because I would really like to see something on the ground there... If you’re just driving down Highway 16, you wouldn’t know the school existed.”
Pete said future generations have a right to know about all these schools and where they once stood because this is Canada’s history too.
“I went to one, but I remember at the time, I didn’t really think too much about it,” she said. “It wasn’t until I got to university that I actually learned the history in Indigenous Studies classes and really started to put everything into perspective … So, when we had that community call to do something. I was there. I was there at the table, very excited to get going on things. And now we’re in year three.”
The group made a four-year commitment to do the walk.
After next year, the committee may start working on getting a memorial placed at the site so the children will never again be forgotten.
Pete said their ancestors deserve to be acknowledged in some way.
“My dad’s dad Ernest Kahmakotayo and his brother Anthony both attended that school,” she said. “When we officially received the school listing last year, I found their names. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is real.’ … My late dad used to tell me stories like, that’s where his dad went. And it was like a farming school.”
Now those old stories take on a deeper meaning and Pete feels a personal connection to the school.
She doesn’t believe the work to raise awareness will ever stop.
“I will love to see it as a heritage site, where people can pull over and get a little history lesson while they are driving down Highway 16,” she said. “I am a big believer that people can learn and can always learn new things.”