Aboriginal children from northern Vancouver Island and B.C.'s north coast attended the Anglican Church-run St. Michael's Indian Residential School from 1929 to 1975. They were taken away from their families, forbidden to speak their languages or practice their culture, said Gwawaeunuk First Nation hereditary chief Robert Joseph, who went to St. Michael's and later founded Reconciliation Canada.
On Wednesday, First Nations leaders, Anglican church representatives,political officials and survivors and their families gathered outside the red bricked St. Michael's to watch the school being torn down.
Perry Bellegard, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says a lot of hurt and pain remain among residential school survivors. But he sees Wednesday's demolition as "the tearing down of a bad chapter."
"The biggest dream we've had as leaders is that our traditions and songs and ceremonies, taught by our elders, will be passed onto our children and grandchildren, and I witnessed that last night," he told B.C. Almanac, referring to celebrations that took place the night before at the local big house.
"One young girl said, 'They didn't win.' That was such a powerful message, that we're still here and the resiliency of our people and that's what I take away from this gathering here at Alert Bay."
First Nations Summit Grand Chief and residential school survivor Ed John didn't attend Wednesday's demolition, but he commended the process as one of the ways that First Nations communities can move forward.
"We've seen stories in the media about profound racism in parts of Canada … but at the same time, now going on in Prince George is the Canada Winter Games, and the Lheidli T'enneh, many of whom went to Indian residential schools are fully involved, welcomed and included in the Canada Winter Games as official hosts," he said. "These kinds of initiatives are really important in the go-forward basis."
The demolition will be completed in a month, and Bellegard says a monument will be erected to honour the students who attended St. Michael's.
To hear the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Residential school demolition symbolizes end of sad chapter for First Nations.