One hundred years ago Mary John Sr. of Saik’uz First Nation boarded a train from Vanderhoof to the Lejac residential school.
The exact date of Mary’s departure to Lejac is unknown to the family — it happened this month in 1922 — when the now infamous residential school near Fraser Lake opened.
The school is now notorious for accounts of deaths and abuse until closing its doors in 1976. It was operated by the Roman Catholic Church under contract with the Government of Canada.
Mary told her story in the book Stoney Creek Woman: The Story of Mary John — first published in 1988. In the book, Mary remembered the day she left for Lejac.
She was transferred to Lejac from the Mission School in Fort St. James — on a horse drawn sleigh loaded with children to Vanderhoof. There, she waited at the Nechako Hotel for the train to arrive.
At first she felt excited for Lejac, and she told herself that everything would be different. But Mary quickly realized that wasn’t the case. Children were still forbidden from speaking their language and she felt just as lonely as she had at the Mission School.
Mary John Sr. went on to become a leader in her community and a role model across Canada. In 1978 she was the first Indigenous person named Vanderhoof Citizen of the Year. In 1995 she received an honorary degree from the University of Northern British Columbia and in 1997 she was made a member of the Order of Canada.
She continued her advocacy for First Nations rights until passing away in 2004, at the age of 91 in Vanderhoof.
Mary is remembered by her son Johnny John Sr., who retraced her voyage on Feb. 1 this year with his niece Gladys Michell and his great grandson.
They placed flowers on the tracks where Mary boarded the train and where she would have debarked. They finished the day at Saik’uz First Nation and placed flowers on her grave there, as well as the grave of her friend Mary Sutherland who was on the train with her when they were little.
Johnny said it was important for him to retrace that voyage as a remembrance for his mother. She taught him the Carrier language — which he wasn’t allowed to speak when he was also sent to residential school.
“My mom was a really kind-hearted woman. She taught us quite a few things, like going hunting and fishing with my dad and her,” Johnny said.
“She taught us our own language and that was really nice. Now my wife and I teach other kids our language, too.”
Michell said her grandmother was an inspiration throughout her life — and fought for First Nations rights during a time when that was even more difficult.
“My grandmother was an amazing, positive person and she tried to find the good in everything… I wish my grandma was here today. I wish she was here so that she could see the acknowledgement that First Nations are finally getting.”
Saik’uz First Nation Chief Pricilla Mueller said they are planning another commemorative event for Mary John Sr. and that her experience was shared by many in the community.
“It just amazes me that it’s been 100 years already. I think about all of the families that have gone through the residential school system, after 1922 — all of our elders going through this and then their children going to the school, and some of their children. It’s sad because of all that happened.”
“Now we’re searching for the missing children.”
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