Celebrating 50 years together this past May, both Laverna and Basil Stevens attended St. Eugene’s residential school
By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Secwépemc (Shuswap) First Nation Elders, Basil and Laverna Stevens, celebrated 50 years together this past May. Both had their first day at St. Eugene’s residential school north of Cranbrook in 1956. Laverna remembered her first day, when she was just five, like it was yesterday. It vividly stands out in her mind, starting with the long ride over. She spent four long years there.
“I spent a good portion of my childhood there. I remember being only five and having to scrub the aluminum stripping on each of the stairs with a toothbrush,” said Laverna. “When we first got there, they took off all our clothes and scrubbed us down in these big tubs, not only with face cloths but with brushes, and kerosene in the hair in case we had bugs, I guess. It was hurtful, it was shameful, it was memorable. It felt like they just wanted to wash the brown skin off us.”
“It was very sadistic,” Basil added. “I remember them seeming like they enjoyed doing it.”
“Depending on when your birthday was, that’s when they’d haul you off to the school,” he continued. “What sticks out for me is the first day. I hated…going. I looked forward to Christmas and summers because I knew it meant we got to go home.”
He recalled visitation rights were difficult ,as many of the children’s parents could not make it up as much as they would have liked to. Residential schools were built a great distance away from Indigenous communities and that was done with intention.
Basil made a promise to his mother to complete grade twelve, but he knew he could not do so at St. Eugene’s. He had resorted to acting out.
“I hated it so much that I started to do bad things like running away, drinking and everything. They couldn’t handle me anymore, so they kicked me out,” Basil said. He attended St. Eugene’s until 1965.
“I was very respectful of my mom’s wishes. She wanted me to finish high school,” he paused, a little choked up. “I listened to her.”
Being kicked out of St. Eugene’s set him free to have the rest of his high school experience at David Thompson Secondary in Invermere.
On his journey after residential school Basil spent a short amount of time at the Oakalla Model Prison Farm near Deer Lake in Burnaby, BC.
“Man, I loved that. Three square meals a day – they treated you good, gave you good clothes (and) I had my own room. As I think back, it was so much better than our time in residential school. The food they gave us and the way they treated us at St. Eugene’s was very bad. I’ve learned to slowly put the trauma aside. I guess you can say I dealt with it and put it away. Not only me, but I can probably speak for almost everyone: residential schools affected everyone out here in their own way and in different ways, but everyone was impacted by their time at them.”
Impacts on survivors of the residential school system often came in the form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or turning to alcohol or other substances after returning home as a means to forget what they had endured. St. Eugene’s, which is now a beautiful golf course, closed its doors in 1970. Basil has been there since and has made his peace with it. Living on their property that has been in the family for generations, Laverna and Basil have made quite a life for themselves.
“Life here on the property and bringing up the kids, we have been able to do what we wanted to do without having the outside world bother us too much, because we had gone through a lot of the discipline, the rigidness, not being able to go out of the yard and play. All the rules we had to endure at the residential school, it was like being in jail,” said Laverna. “Then when we came home, and got married, we drank a lot at first because that’s what our parents, and everybody around us did. Not realizing why, they drank to forget everything that happened in residential school, or what happened when they got home. The young people still do their drugs, because they don’t know what to do and I think they would do much better coming back to their culture, to their ways of life. It’s hard but because we were seeking out the spirituality, the culture, we’re comfortable with it. We were once both alcoholics. We could go back to drinking, but we don’t have that urge anymore. It’s just not a calling anymore.”
Laverna and Basil, now 70 and 71 respectively, celebrated 50 years together in May. They had a big tent on their property, and all were invited; many came to wish them well. Over the years, they have found wisdom through counsellors and traditional healers. Basil shared that a lot of First Nation Elders who do a lot of motivational speaking grew up a specific way and know how to steer away from alcohol and drugs, and are trying to pass that on to the kids who will listen to them. Basil’s and Laverna’s calling now (and it has been for years) is getting back to spirituality and their cultural roots.
“It’s been 22 years since I brought the Sundance and the sweat lodge back here. I knew there was next to no spirituality whatsoever back in the 90’s. I wanted to bring it back here so our people could start utilizing it,” shared Basil. “Their first impression was, This isn’t ours; this isn’t our way; we are not going to come to the sweat.’ We had it a long time ago, and then we lost it, said Basil. “The ones that kept it were mainly the Sioux, they kept that spiritual aspect, as provinces and countries finally started to become more relaxed on cultural practices. It sticks out in my mind that it was 1950 in B.C. (when) Indigenous Peoples were allowed to practice their old ways again. I find people have become too colonized and no longer gravitate towards or even want to try the old way of doing things. I’m happy with this spiritual way of life.”
That is what residential schools have done to the Indigenous culture: they not only have stripped them of their identity, but killed countless young, innocent Indigenous children. After years of truth telling falling on deaf ears, it took the uncovering of the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops last May for the nation to wake up and have a long overdue Truth and Reconciliation Day incepted. Basil said his great-grandfather was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary’s graveyard and noted how the day the 215 unmarked graves were uncovered impacted them both.
“The first thing that came to my mind and Laverna’s… was it takes something like that for people to finally believe us,” said Basil “We knew there were a lot of missing children that never came home, but then to finally have those 215 found – and then the public was finally being wow – but no one believed what the Indigenous Peoples had been saying for years.”
Laverna added, “It is like the world finally woke up after the 215 unmarked graves were uncovered. These kids, the native people, were telling the truth and we just came and sat outside on our deck. And for me it was like those kids, those babies were almost sitting on the deck with us. Somebody found us, we’re here, we’re true, you know, and so we just sat here for about an hour; quiet. We just had our own thoughts, but so much went through our minds. I thought about the truth; it was those babies, those kids that finally brought the truth out, you know, turning the ground over and saying we’re here.”
The uncovering of the unmarked graves in Kamloops and the many that followed exposed the truth, even though the voices that were telling the truth were never heard before this. There is much reconciliation to be done and we have only begun to scratch the surface. Non-Indigenous people need to do the inner work and realize and understand, not just one day a year, but all 365 of them. As we approach Canada’s second Truth and Reconciliation Day, Laverna shared her thoughts.
“I feel sometimes we are now treated differently, like we are treated as people. I feel there is still a sense of mistreatment out there by some. They might not mean to do it, but it’s so ingrained in them,” she said. “Truth and Reconciliation, you got to be willing to work with people and face the truth and reconcile. It often gets too truthful, too deep for some, something they are not ready to touch, but we (had) a hard time, don’t they know that? There are so many things we don’t know because we have forgotten our rights. It’s been knocked and kicked out of us. So now we must rebuild ourselves and we need help.”