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In 2021, during the last week of September, the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre offered a week of learning opportunities about residential schools and their impact. The Centre provided a range of activities, including a smudging tent on Main street outside of the Friendship Centre provide in-person teachings on smudging, resources and information about the history and impact of residential schools. Other key activities included canoe paddling for local businesses and organizations on Tyhee Lake and Lake Kathlyn with Alcohol and Drug Counsellor Mel Bazil.

A highlight of the week was the opportunity for our Friendship Centre to connect with two local elementary schools. At the Friendship Centre Sonia Palmer, a trauma informed mental health outreach worker is a survivor and has been engaging with students for many years to increase knowledge and understanding of the impacts of residential schools. In particular, Muheim Elementary School in Smithers has a strong connection with Sonia Palmer and classes have been visiting the Friendship Centre to honour survivors.

Liliana Pesce, Vice Principle a Muheim Elementary explains how this special relationship came to be:

“On September 29th, in 2017, my class of eight and nine year olds, wanted to recognize and honour residential school survivors.  We had been learning about this troubling part of Canada’s history and we wanted to do our part in acknowledging that we are sorry for the way children and their families were treated.  The students and I decorated orange paper t-shirts and included quotes about strength, resilience, courage and loss on these t-shirts.  We created a banner with our little paper shirts and we walked to the Friendship Centre in Smithers.  Students shared their learning, and then we were about to leave the building, when one of the employees asked us to wait.  What happened next, was a beautiful connection that has been nourished and strengthened over the years.  We were invited to meet, Sonia.  Sonia is a residential school survivor and employee at the Friendship Centre.  Sonia told the students about some of her experiences.  Her main message to the children was (and remains the same today), “never let another student walk or play alone.”  Sonia often talks to the children about being safe, caring about each other and playing together.”

Every year since, Ms Pesce creates space and extremely valuable learning opportunities for her students to connect with Sonia Palmer here at the Friendship Centre on September 30th. The students often come and provide cards and messages for Sonia. The Dze L K’an Friendship Centre decided that in 2021 we would do further outreach into the school communities.

In 2021, with the unmarked graves discovered, there has been a great deal of trauma unsurfaced for many community members, many more students and teachers were eager to expand their knowledge.

Our staff created 215 orange fabric squares which were distributed to Muheim Elementary as well as students and teachers from the French School, Ecole La Grande-Ourse. Sonia arranged visits with the schools and welcomed students to visit her at the Friendship Centre.

During these visits she provided the squares and talked to the student, explaining that they were free to write or draw whatever they wished as long as the messages came from the heart. Each student who participated was also entered into the Friendship Centre’s prize draw for a face mask or a reusable lunch bag.

On September 29th, a large number of students from Muheim Elementary and the Ecole LaGrande-Ourse came to the Friendship Centre to provide Sonia with their squares and to sing to Sonia and the staff. Each student delivered their square personally to Sonia along with flowers and painted orange rocks.

Some students shared their messages with Sonia, sharing their grief about residential schools and their hopes for the future. This was a very profound and healing moment for many including for students, teachers, parents and the Friendship Centre staff, teacher, parents and community members who witnessed it.

Sonia’s traditional Gitxsan name is Ska’sii’sik and this means “to pull something together.”  Sonia has truly pulled together the hearts and lives of the community and we are ever so grateful for her love as well as the opportunity

to learn through her stories and lessons about kindness and friendship, said Ms Pesce.

The local French school in Smithers, École La Grande-ourse, also visited for the very first time in 2021 and participated in our orange squares activities. “The orange square project allowed the children to reflect on the losses of students who attended residential schools and to send a message of compassion to those who survived.  We hope to make more connections like this in the future,” says Anne Marie Findlay, teacher at École La Grande-ourse.

Sonia, a talented seamstress, now has begun the task of now be sewing the squares together for each class to hang their banner next year in the week leading up to September 30th.

Sonia says “This work is important to me. It will provide opportunities for awareness and education for years to come. It will be special that these banners were created the year that the unmarked graves were discovered. The banners were created for the country’s first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation and these children will grow up and will remember to teach their own children about this history too.”

The Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre Society wishes to acknowledge Sonia Palmer for her courage and generosity in sharing her experiences and knowledge with the community. We also wish to thank the Muheim Elementary School and École La Grande as well as many community members and businesses who came together with us this year, showing strong leadership and supporting knowledge building and healing within our communities.