Barbara Wyss hopes to see statue go up June 21
By Agnieszka Krawczynski
By Agnieszka Krawczynski
The B.C. Catholic
Caption: Barbara Wyss
A former residential school student is building a statue to help heal pains of the past.
"This monument will become part of the healing process," said Barbara Wyss, who attended St. Paul's Indian Residential School in North Vancouver from 1952-1957.
Wyss's experiences at the school motivated her to create the statue, which will be unveiled this summer, to remember the past and help others move on.
"Our language, our history, our people, it was all to be forgotten," the Squamish native recounted.
The oldest of nine children, Wyss was forbidden to speak to the boys, including her brothers, or to use her native language at the boarding school. She says discipline was "excessive."
"At that time in history, teachers were allowed to use a leather strap. I was strapped constantly." Wyss said she suffered also physical and sexual abuse, something she's suing the government for.
"For seven years they have been making a decision on it. Hopefully within the next few weeks it will be completed and I can put that part of my life behind me. It's haunted me most of my life."
Despite the trauma, Wyss surprisingly describes most of her time at the residential school as "a good experience."
Caption: Barbara Nahanee (second from left) (now Wyss) stands with her Grade 2 classmates at St. Paul's Indian Residential School in 1951. Photo submitted.
"We learned a lot of housekeeping and social skills. I loved learning. It was always fascinating; I wanted to stay in school."
She said the school had a boys' boxing club, a girls' choir, and an Irish jig dance group that took prizes in archdiocesan and provincial competitions.
Wyss, who was known for reading encyclopedias, became the only student in her class to graduate to Grade 8, and later, the first person in her village to graduate from high school.
"My father strongly believed in education," she said. All of her siblings graduated high school and four completed university. "We are looked up to by different members of the community because of what we were able to accomplish."
Now a parishioner at St. Paul's Indian Catholic Church, Wyss admits she had trouble trusting the Church after she left the residential school.
"I was very bitter and angry for a long time. I did a lot of counselling, and my father said it's the people who were running these institutions, not God, and not the Church, who caused the problems."
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission announced it would fund residential school memorials through its Commemoration Initiative, Wyss sent in a proposal for a monument on the land of her former school.
She suggested a carving of a boy and a girl, standing back to back on a concrete base, to be placed on the grounds where St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School now stands.
The TRC did not accept the proposal, but various donors stepped in to support the erection of the memorial.
"As sisters who had been there from the very beginning of the school in 1899, we thought it was very important this monument go up," said Sister Denece Billesberger, SEJ, president of the Sisters' Association of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
"It was an injustice done to our first nations people."
Jason Nahanee spent one year carving the seven-foot-tall wooden section of the monument.
"We want to show that these were strong young people before the residential school came along," he said. The other portion, made of cement, will be in the shape of a wave, and display 600 names of students who attended St. Paul's.
Wyss hopes to see the statue go up on National Aboriginal Day, June 21.
"I forgive what happened to me," she said.
21 June poster above +
more info on this school: