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Elders gathering brings laughter, tears

PORT ALBERNI, British Columbia – Elders from throughout British Columbia, Alberta and Washington state gathered in the small Vancouver Island city of Port Alberni in early August for the 30th Annual B.C. Elders Gathering.

For some, it was their first visit back to Port Alberni since their time as students at the Alberni Indian Residential School.

“I never wanted to see that place ever again,” said 61-year-old Roselda Mussel. “But when I heard the Elders Gathering was going to be in Port Alberni I figured it was time to face that place again.”

Taken from her home in Chilliwack, more than 100 miles and a ferry trip away, Roselda was only 5 years old when she was shipped to AIRS.

“The first week I was here, my mother died. They wouldn’t let me or my brothers go home for the funeral. I wasn’t allowed to talk to my brothers. I cried forever,” she said.

Walking around the grounds of the former residential school, only two buildings from the original complex remain. Mussel snapped a few pictures of them to show her children, then left.

Two dozen people made similar treks, many bringing grief and trauma counselors made available by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, one of the First Nations organizations located on the site of the former residential school.

“Many of the people who came here have been carrying anger for 50, 60, even 70 years because of that place,” said organizer Vina Robinson. “This gathering is about fun and friendship, but we also knew it would be a chance for some to return to the area and leave some of their pain and anger back at the place where they got it.”

More than 3,000 elders attended the July 17 – 19 gathering, which was an opportunity to renew old friendships, start new ones, celebrate First Nations cultures from around the Pacific Northwest, discuss issues of the day and learn about programs and services geared towards elders.

Hotels throughout the area were booked up months in advance, and area restaurants and bingo halls brought in extra staff to handle the rush of visitors.

Nations paraded into the Alberni Valley Multiplex arena for the opening ceremonies attended by Native and non-Native dignitaries.

“We are here to celebrate you, your vast knowledge and experience, and learn from you for the betterment of future generations,” said British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell. “So often you paid the heavy price for policies of denial and practices of indifference. For your perseverance, let me say on behalf of the people of British Columbia, thank you.”

The event featured performers from throughout Canada, including singers, fashion designers, cultural groups and comedians.

Elders attended workshops at neighboring North Island College on the proposed Indian Residential School compensation package, avoiding elder abuse and fraud, avoiding injuries and even a session on flirting.

“Many elders who have lost their spouses are alone, and looking for someone to spend time with,” said workshop organizer J’net August. “This is a way to help them back into the dating game in a safe and healthy way.”

There were side trips organized on ferries and steam trains, vendors selling everything from beads to bannock, and a wellness center where people could get a massage, manicure and haircut, and meet with traditional herbalists.

Visiting elders were very impressed with the many activities available and all the planning and organization that went into the event, and had nothing but compliments for their hosts and the army of volunteers.

Next year’s Elders Gathering will be hosted by the Squamish First Nation in North Vancouver.