Josie Hanuse was five years old when she first came to St. Michael's Indian Residential School, an imposing brick building in Alert Bay, B.C., off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
On Wednesday, she was back, carrying the same suitcase she'd been given as a parting gift by her parents in 1967, and sharing tears and embraces with other former students who had come from around the province and beyond to witness the symbolic demolition of St. Michael's.
"I was one of those children who never came home," Ms. Hanuse said after an emotional ceremony that included heavy equipment destroying the school's front porch and the opportunity for former students to hurl rocks at the decrepit building's façade.
The ceremony – punctuated by sobs, singing, prayers and drumming – was a symbolic watershed for former students such as Ms. Hanuse. It was also a reminder of the lasting, multigenerational impact of residential schools and the ripple effects in First Nations communities, decades after most schools have closed and years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology in the House of Commons in 2008.
Ms. Hanuse, for example, didn't go back to live in the home where her parents had carefully packed the little suitcase for the journey they did not want her to take. By the time she left St. Michael's at 14, her mother was dead and her father was deemed unable to care for his children because of his alcohol abuse. Ms. Hanuse went into foster care and began a cycle of drinking, gambling and drug addiction that ended 17 years ago, when she began what she calls her "healing journey."
At Alert Bay, she took another step, along with others who threw rocks, lit candles and wept. One speaker urged survivors to see the ceremony as a turning point for aboriginal children, who are overrepresented in provincial child-welfare systems and at risk of being similarly overrepresented in prisons.
"I know the intergenerational impact," Carla Voyageur, whose mother, father, grandfather and other relatives attended residential schools, told the gathering. "I have seen my share of dysfunction. I have seen my fair share of abuse. I have seen my fair share of addiction. And it is a direct effect of all of this," she said, gesturing at the school.
More than half of aboriginal children live in poverty, and aboriginal youth are five times more likely to commit suicide than non-aboriginal youth, Ms. Voyageur said.
"We have to rise up and above the negative effects [of residential schools]," Ms. Voyageur said. "The time is now – to reclaim our children and ourselves."
St. Michael's, which was under administration of the Anglican church, opened as a co-ed facility in 1929 with a capacity for 200 students. Reports of abuse are common. Ms. Hanuse says she was sexually molested by a staff person at the school and hit so roughly on the head she was deafened in one ear.
Robert Joseph, a former student and current ambassador with the non-profit group Reconciliation Canada, says he was also abused there and, as a child, had no idea that other children across the country were going through the same thing. An estimated 160,000 children attended residential schools across Canada.
"We are here for all the other little children across the land who had to come to schools like this," Mr. Joseph said.
St. Michael's was part of a colonial system that removed children from their parents and made them vulnerable to physical, sexual, emotional and cultural abuse, Anglican Bishop Logan McMenamie told the gathering. "We failed you, we failed ourselves and we failed the creator," he said, adding that the church was "sincerely sorry."
Canada's former department of Indian Affairs took over the school in 1969 and, after several years as a hostel, it closed in 1974 and was turned over to the Nimpkish Band. There was talk of redeveloping it, but its poor condition and bleak history worked against that idea. The building is expected to be fully demolished later this year.
"It was a release – a letting go," Ms. Hanuse said of the ceremony. "It was the final part of my healing journey for my childhood."