Soaring above racism and segregation

Three generations of Nation women tell what it was like to go to school in Squamish

She was nine years old when they came for her: three pairs of shoes at the door of her home on the Cheekye Reserve. She swung the door open and the men came in. Her father rose from the couch. He wouldn’t let them take her. 

Linda Williams, 60, recalls the moment her father saved her and her siblings from being taken to residential school by the Indian agent, the priest and another man who came calling.

“My dad said, ‘There is no way in hell anybody is taking my kids to boarding school,’” she recalled “and he physically threw each one of them off the porch.” 

The children were lucky, said Williams, a prominent Squamish Nation elder. Her daughter Charlene and granddaughter Jazmyn agreed.

The three generations of Williams women shared how education and community in Skwxwu7mesh (Squamish) defined them.  

Williams, whose Squamish Nation name, Kwekwin Kwelhaynexw means “Where the Spirit Lives,” went to Brackendale Elementary School until she finished Grade 4 and then transferred to Squamish Elementary. She was the first generation in her family to be educated at public school. Her father and grandparents had been taken to residential school. 

Public school was better than being sent away, but it wasn’t easy.

“We experienced a lot of racism,” she said.

“I didn’t try to figure out the reasons they were racist towards us. We were just in survival mode.” 

Outside of school, though, Williams said, life in the Squamish Valley was idyllic.

 “Our time was spent outside… playing games in the community… There were only four houses then and each house pretty well had 10 kids each.”

The children played running races around the reserve and kick the can. In the summer, children often spent time on the Cheekye River with their fathers. 

The sense of community was also strong for Williams’ daughter, Charlene 

Charlene, 35, said while she was growing up on the Wai Wai Kum reserve, she knew everyone in every house, and even the name of every family’s dog. 

People shared and cared for each other, she said.

She recalls one day when she ventured off the reserve with her cousins and siblings to walk to the store and learned the world was different outside the protective shell of her community.

“We had picked berries all along the way, so it took us forever,” she said. The younger children needed to use the washroom on the way home so they stopped at a house located just before the reserve. 

When the non-Native woman opened the door, her face showed her surprise, Charlene recalled.

“On the reserve, we could just stop at one of our neighbours’ houses and say, ‘Hey, can I use your bathroom?’” she said, chuckling.

 “I can just imagine, thinking about it now, all these berry-stained little Native kids.” 

The culture shock was even more pronounced when Charlene, who is now a cultural and language worker in corridor schools, started at Brackendale Elementary School: She faced the same racism her mother had experienced.

 “I get the opportunity to bend the ear of people who work in the school district, and one of the things I have told them is, growing up and going to school here in Squamish was hell for me,” she said. 

“Being called names, being ostracized. Nobody wanted me on their team, no one wanted me in their group,” she said. 

The abuse changed her personality. 

“If I was on reserve, I was outspoken, but as soon as I got into the school I was introverted, quiet, shy. I didn’t talk to anybody.” 

At 17, she moved to Vancouver and reclaimed her voice by attending the Native Education College, which led her to become an educator herself. 

She has been teaching in local schools for 12 years, the entire time her son, who graduates this year, and her daughter Jazmyn, 15, have been in school.

She credits the Squamish Nation education department with reducing racism in schools and with doing the work to bring back First Nations culture.

“Without the department and these programs, we wouldn’t have the opportunities to learn, share and experience our cultural teachings.”

Ensuring First Nations youth go on to post-secondary education is also important, Charlene said. “My mother’s generation was the first generation that would have been able to go to college or university without giving up their rights as a status First Nations person, and so when she went to college, that is a big deal,” she said.“Me going to college and university, that is a big deal, but for [my children] growing up, it was never a question.” 

“I have tried to really instill in them, ‘This is what you are going to do,’ because in my grandparent’s generation, it wasn’t possible.” 

The message got through to Charlene’s daughter Jazmyn, who plans to teach First Nations language as a career.

But while things have changed for the better, all three Williams agree that there are still issues to face. Jazmyn didn’t have an easy time in middle school at Don Ross Secondary School, she said. 

“There was quite a bit of racism towards me and some of my friends,” she said, adding the hardest part was watching her cousins being targeted, “knowing that I couldn’t do anything about it because then I would just be targeted more than I already was.” 

She looks forward to starting in the new land-based Learning Expeditions program at the former Stawamus Elementary School this fall, she said. 

Jazmyn’s grandmother said she’s excited about the two new programs at Stawamus: the Expeditions program and the First Nations based Cultural Journeys program.

“I know they will do well because First Nations people, we’re visual learners, we are hands-on learners,” Linda said. 

“It will be reconnecting the youth to the land.” 

Charlene agrees the programs are a big step in the right direction and quoted Murray Sinclair, a First Nations judge, lawyer, and chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “Education got us into this mess and it is education that is going to get us out.”

Charlene said, “And so that is how we’re trying to make the big changes to educate our youth, to make them stronger and to make them resilient – to give them a voice.” 

It is women who are leading the way to bring culture back, said Linda. She wasn’t raised with many Squamish Nation traditions because her parents had been denied knowledge of their culture in residential school, she said.  

But she made sure her own children learned the traditions, and she learned along with them.

That education was a gift Charlene said is a way to reconnect generations with their roots.

“I taught my mom how to weave, but I am also teaching my daughter how to weave, so one day I will teach my granddaughter how to weave and she will teach her daughter, and we will be in the natural cycle again.” 

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