Saturday will dawn with special meaning for many across Canada as the nation marks its third official National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
But for First Nations in and around Vancouver Island’s West Coast, the event will also mark a significant local milestone: they will also be celebrating the 50th anniversary of when they successfully lobbied for the closing of Port Alberni’s Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS).
It was in July 1973 that the West Coast District Council of Indian Chiefs (which later became Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council) sent a letter to the Department of Indian Affairs, propositioning the closure of the residential school. This letter, signed by the West Coast Council’s chairman George Watts, led to a meeting between Canada and Nuu-chah-nulth leaders.
On Aug. 31, 1973, AIRS closed its doors forever.
On Monday, Sept. 25, leaders from the City of Port Alberni, Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, Tseshaht First Nation and Hupacasath First Nation gathered with residential school survivors outside of city hall to raise the “Every Child Matters” flag ahead of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“I look forward to a good future,” said Wally Samuel, a residential school survivor from Ahousaht First Nation, after the flag was raised. Samuel and his family now reside in Port Alberni.
Ken Watts, elected Chief Councillor for Tseshaht First Nation, agreed.
“The world is changing,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we weren’t even doing territorial acknowledgements at the city or in our schools. But now these flags are going up all over the city.”
Watts invited everyone to a special event that will be hosted by Tseshaht First Nation on Sept. 30 to celebrate the anniversary of the school’s closing. The day will start with a gathering at the Best Western Plus Barclay Hotel in Port Alberni at 10 a.m. A showing of artwork created by AIRS students will be displayed here.
At 11 a.m., people will begin to walk from the hotel to Maht Mahs gymnasium on Tseshaht First Nation territory. Everyone is invited to join the walk and the gathering at Maht Mahs, which will include lunch, drumming, singing, dinner and more.
Throughout the event, survivors and guests can expect an uplifting, celebratory environment, but there will be cultural supports and counsellors on site for those who need them.