With a defiant grin, and pushing a walker Tuesday, 76-year-old residential school survivor Donna Samuel and her husband Wally, crossed a bridge they were once banned from using.
“We haven’t crossed this bridge for a long time,” said Wally Samuel.
“We were punished for coming down here,” said the Ahousaht First Nation elder.
The iconic orange bridge linking Port Alberni to the Tseshaht First Nation on Highway 4 has been painted silver for years. But to survivors, it’s always been a reminder of their time trapped in Alberni Indian Residential school and the bridge they weren’t allowed to cross to leave.
“We both went there as little kids. You know, it was really lonesome. You were taken out of your family, your community and there were bad people looking after us,” said Samuel.
On Tuesday, they painted its pillars orange — reclaiming it, with other survivors like Ken Watts.
“It feels good. It’s bringing back a lot of memories,” said Tom Watts, a Tseshaht elder.
“It feels like we are almost renewing something that gave us bad memories and triggers,” said Samuel.
“Because we need people to remember that this really happened to us,” said Donna Samuel.
They painted the bridge alongside Tseshaht children, in honour of residential school survivors.
“It means the world to me,” said 10-year-old Kailane Watts, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation, and son of Tseshaht chief Ken Watts.
“Yeah he’s definitely curious about residential schools and it’s pretty awesome to watch him. He knows what it means to survivors,” said Watts.
It comes as the Tseshaht First Nation completes its initial scans of the former site of the Alberni residential school, exploring for potential grave sites.
“We just did our first phase and it will be a month or two before we have our results and we’ll be sharing them with survivors first and other nations who had students that made it to Alberni,” said Chief Watts.
As this community takes steps toward what Watts and survivors have begun calling “reconcili-action” and the healing that’s hoped will come with it.