Sts’ailes elder Sel Ya:al Nancy Patricia Charlie never thought she would see the day.
She was among the first Indigenous youths in the late 50s to be allowed to go to public school rather than St. Mary’s Residential School. On Thursday, June 10, Charlie witnessed a celebration of her culture, dedicating a welcome banner at Agassiz Elementary Secondary School, featuring traditional artwork, symbols of the territory and the Halq’eméylem phrase “Ey Swayel,” poignantly translated as “a good day.”
“It’s time,” she told The Observer, not long after speaking at the dedication ceremony. “The prayer, the song, the significance of the sign means a lot. It’s not just a sign. I believe it’s really going to support how we can fit better into the system. It can work in many good ways; not just for our students, but for all students.”
Artist Simone Williams created the sign, featuring an eagle as well as Mt. Cheam and the Fraser River. The eagle’s head as part of the school’s original logo and the body was her own design.
“I had creative freedom on this; they just said ‘we’d like these three things incorporated,’ and it just came together very easily, very peacefully,” Williams said.
In her mind, the banner provides needed acknowledgement of the Indigenous territory the school is on and is another step toward truth and reconciliation.
“It’s bringing that peace to the schools,” Williams added.
Charlie said she’s witnessed firsthand how Indigenous culture has become more infused in a largely Euro-centric school system, using graduation ceremonies and the banner dedication as an example. Her parents went to residential schools, and it was forbidden to speak their traditional language in their own home.
“It was difficult when we came (to public schools) in ‘58,” she recalled. “It was really foreign; our parents didn’t even know how to cope with that because they were in residential schools. It was pumped into our heads that we had to just listen and not make noise and that white people were better than us. That was really imprinted into us; they told us all the time. In the years now, we’ve overcome that and we’re moving into a better place.”