strength & resilience through syilx culture

June 11, 2021

Content warning: The following story contains difficult subject matter, including a residential school experience. Please take care.

The first residential school in Canada, the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, opened in January of 1831.

After 165 years of operation, the Canadian Residential School System officially ended with the 1996 closure of the last federally-operated facility, located in Punnichy, Saskatchewan.

The effects of this system continue to be felt by its survivors and their descendants to this day.

lasting impacts

Like Indigenous Communities around the country, the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation experienced the devastating impacts of the Residential School System.

Many Syilx Children attended either the Kamloops Residential School or the St. Eugene’s Residential School in Cranbrook.

 

A traditional Syilx stick game at Head of the Lake / Nk’maplqs in 1972

 

Some Syilx Nation children attended day schools in their home communities. These day schools also had the explicit mandate, as was once said by Sir John A. MacDonald, was to “take the Indian out of the child”.

Day schools also left painful and oppressive impacts on Okanagan Nation communities, as well.

“You don’t know how it feels”

Rosie Jack, born at Head of the Lake in 1932, was interviewed by UBC’s LaVonne Kober in 2012. During the interview, Rosie recalled her experiences at the Kamloops Residential School, were she was sent with her siblings as a child of seven: “to be taken away from your family, your mom and papa… sent away in a big, big stock truck. You don’t know how it feels. You are just completely lost and then you got punished because you cried for your mom. It’s hard.”

When the children arrived at the Kamloops Residential School, their hair was cut short and they were assigned uniforms. Rosie painfully recalled the moment she had to give up the beautiful new dress and shoes her mother had bought her for the journey. Rosie was separated from her brothers, and forbidden to speak her native nsyilxcən. The children attended classes in the morning, and worked in the afternoon. Rosie spent one month carrying sad irons between the kitchen and the laundry room. 

resiliency through traditional culture

Rosie later returned to the school as an adult: “When I went in that school when I was a girl it was huge, it was so big. When I went back there a few years ago, it looked so small.” Despite the pain of losing her siblings and watching her mother succumb to grief, Rosie was resilient, and able to rediscover her culture through the raising of her nephew, Terry. She discussed traveling to powwows across Canada and the United States so that Terry could compete in sticking tournaments: “he has always done so well. He’s a real good sticking player.”

“We are still here. In fact, we are thriving”

Former Grand Chief and Chair of the Okanagan Nation Alliance Stewart Philip states that “we can celebrate the fact that the Indian residential school was a complete and dismal failure. We are still here. In fact, we are thriving. Our languages are coming back through our children. Our songs and customs are coming back through our youth. Our traditions are being openly shared by our Elders. Our women are providing the leadership to ensure everything is done in a good way.” Philip adds that if people, like Rosie, did not have the “courage and resilience to resist, we would not be here today.” 

Gwyn Evans

drink up to the end of polio

June 7, 2021

Vernon’s COVID-19 vaccination program is well-underway, with more than half of North Okanagan adults having received their first dose.

Fifty-eight years ago, in 1963, the arrival of the Sabin oral polio vaccine in Vernon caused similar amounts of excitement among the city’s population.

A Vaccine you could drink

A polio vaccine was invented and tested in the 1950s and ‘60s by Albert Sabin, a Polish-American medical researcher. His vaccine replaced one invented by Jonas Salk that was approved for use in 1955. Salk’s vaccine was administered via an injection, while Sabin’s was taken orally.

 

From left to right, Dr. Duncan Black, Vera McCulloch and Bruce Cousins receive the Sabin oral polio vaccine from senior public health Nurse Evalyn Allingham.

 

The Toll of Polio

In the decades prior to the invention of a polio vaccine, thousands of people died around the world from the disease. Vernon experienced polio epidemics in 1927, 1934, and 1937. Although the disease mostly affected children, adults were also vulnerable to infection.

In 1953, Donald Joseph Tompson, a 29-year-old World War Two Veteran and Okanagan Telephone Co. employee, contracted polio and passed away five years later in Vernon. He left behind a wife and two young children.

Health Care Professionals Leading the Way

When Sabin’s oral polio vaccine arrived in Vernon in 1963, citizens of all ages were encouraged to take it. “Drink Up To The End of Polio” read signs plastered around the city.

Doctor Duncan Black, businesswoman Vera McCulloch and Mayor Bruce Cousins led by example, and were among the first to receive the vaccine. Evalyn Allingham, senior public health nurse for the North Okanagan, guided her staff through the process of immunizing Vernon’s population with both the Salk and Sabin vaccines.  

After years of the disease devastating populations around the world, polio vaccines helped to gradually reduce occurrences of the infection by 99%.

Gwyn Evans