Healing quilts

Over 920 handmade quilts bring comfort to residential school survivors across Canada.

Lucy Thomas, the fourth generation of residential school survivors in her family, was five years old when she was taken away from her mother and brought to Kuper Island Residential School in British Columbia. The students called it Alcatraz.

While at Kuper Island, Lucy and her siblings were punished if they were seen talking to one another. They weren’t allowed to do anything the nuns didn’t want them to do. “A lot of the young ones died trying to escape there by swimming across in the ocean,” she told me. “We were gone for three years. I thought I’d never see my mom again and even when I did, it was different.”

Lucy’s mother experienced horrors during her own 15 years at residential school. As a result, she became an alcoholic and abusive toward her children. “That took me a long time to understand,” Lucy explained.

I asked Lucy to share her story with me. As we spoke, she recalled painful memories from Kuper Island. “I’d get in trouble for wetting the bed and we had to clean that ourselves. I remember playing outside and I was so hungry that I would eat the rosehips that I saw on the bush. The nuns acted like they were there for us but there were times I remember seeing them down at the beach getting drunk.” She was forced to do everything – eating, talking and even walking – “their way.” Who she was couldn’t survive. She was forced to become the person they wanted.

Lucy Thomas spent three years at Kuper Island Residential School as a child.

As we talked, I found myself holding back tears, mourning for Lucy and her family and what they’ve suffered. “In bed at night I’d be scared because you knew somebody was always coming for one of the girls,” she remembered. “There were boys taken too. I could say I was grateful that I was never one of those girls, but life was different when I went home.”

When Lucy came home to her parents after three years, she was still required to go to the residential day school. At home she was sexually abused by her stepdad. “It was almost like being back at residential school all over again.”

Last year, on May 27, 2020, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation uncovered the remains of 215 children at the site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. More mass, unmarked graves were uncovered at residential schools across Canada that summer. Following the news, Lucy was overwhelmed. “There was a time when I thought nobody would ever believe our stories. I couldn’t watch the news because I just cried for days. I thought, ‘We already knew that.’ I just wished everybody would have listened before. It’s heartbreaking.”

Source of strength

In Timmins, Ontario, Vanessa Génier was also following last summer’s news of the mass graves. Génier knew she had to do something. “In my First Nation, the Missanabie Cree, we’ve always honoured former chiefs and anyone who’s done anything significant, with a quilt,” she explained. So Vanessa started a Facebook group to find people to help her make a few quilts, and she called it “Quilts for Survivors.” It grew more than she ever anticipated. First there were 50 people, then 100, then 200, and now almost 4,000 members in the group. The original goal was to make 215 blocks for each of the children found, which would make 18 quilts, but when Vanessa and I talked they’d sent out 924 quilts and counting!

One of those quilts was gifted to Lucy and throughout our conversation she wore it with pride around her shoulders. When I asked what it meant to her, she told me about the comfort that she receives through it.

“I think about all the love and compassion that was put into it. I wear my blanket, not just for me, but for my mom, my grandparents and great grandparents. It means a lot to me and I’m so grateful to the ladies who did this. When I want to remember the good times I had with my mom I wear it. I was thinking I needed someone to sit here with me while I talk about this but I have my blanket. That’s what keeps me going and gives me strength.”

Hope for healing

There were times while we spoke that Lucy sometimes got lost in the memories. I asked what it was like to remember and tell these stories. “To finally be able to start talking about it has made me feel much better. It’s still hurtful, but nothing can ever go back and change it,” she explained. “We can talk about it but we still need to keep moving forward. I don’t want to go back to my old ways. I’m much better today.”

Some of the survivors were able to gather in person last fall to receive their quilts. (photo by Katherine Elizabeth Jeremiah-Génier).

Lucy now has four children and eight grandchildren. She told me her oldest daughter was 10 years old when the last residential school closed. “I’m blessed to know that my grandchildren are learning their language and their culture today, whereas that was all just taken away from us back then. My culture and my language mean so much to me.”

Lucy lost the life she deserved because of how other people saw her. We’re all guilty of seeing things that need to change in our world but then ignoring them when we feel overwhelmed. I asked Lucy what people who are not Indigenous can learn from events of 2020.

“I want them to see that this is what we lived through,” she said. “And this is where we are today. I’m blessed to have come this far. I always prayed things would change and when I heard about those children on the news I thought, it’s going to start happening. People are going to start listening and understanding. I carry so much pain and nobody wanted to hear it, but now there are those who do, so thank you.”


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