Ghosts that We Knew: My Journey to Alert Bay

Ghosts that We Knew: My Journey to Alert Bay

by Dawna Wall

On March 24-26 Diocesan Council held its monthly meeting in Alert Bay so it could spend time with Chief Debra Hanuse, band council members and elders of the 'Namgis First Nation. Read more about this historic gathering here.

Different soundtracks accompany us on our journeys and sometimes they are unexpected. Arriving on Cormorant Island in Alert Bay for the Diocesan Council retreat, I thought my internal soundtrack might be drums or some of the powerful First Nations music that echoes the power of the Creator. Instead, at one of our early group gatherings, Bishop Logan played the Mumford and Sons song, “The Ghosts that We Knew” and its haunting guitar chords and harmonies mingled with my observations of this sacred island, where there is much beauty, abundant grace and heartbreakingly, too many ghosts.

As we travelled up island, I had been waiting and watching for the scenery to change and was relieved and yet disappointed to find it seemed much like the rest of Vancouver Island. It certainly felt more remote, but our vanload of cheerful pilgrims kept me from feeling alone or isolated.

When our ferry approached Alert Bay, I first saw the cemetery and the totems rising up from the land, punctuating that space of sea and sky. The majestic and humble beauty of the totems is an expression of endurance and strength in wood and colour, creature and creation.

Near the cemetery is the now green and grassy meadow where St. Michael’s Residential School was and here is where I found my tears began to flow and where I first encountered the ghosts referenced in the Mumford and Sons song. In my heart, I heard the voices of the children attempting to hold on to their culture, their families, their language, their sense of self. I listened for the echoes through the years of the mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles wailing for the multitude of losses that arrived with the settlers.

Over the weekend, we were honoured to share meals and stories with some members of the community. Their courage and kindness overwhelmed my heart and I wondered if I could have a space as large as that for forgiveness, understanding and hope if someone had wrenched my children, my culture and my home from me.

I felt proud of my colleagues, Tanya Packer-McKeon and Lincoln McKeon, and their ministry of presence with the ‘Namgis and their willingness and desire to stand with the community in the ongoing and daily challenges it faces.

We share in a danceone of movements of deep lament, mourning, anguish and grief. But it is also a dance of joy and hope because the connecting thread is love. The love that connected the families even when they were torn apart. The love that embraces us as we, the colonial descendents, find the courage to acknowledge the horror our settling here brought, and recognize the love that will redeem us as we seek to find a way to re-enter the land.

What would it look like for us to begin our relationship with our First Nations brothers and sisters as if travellers in a new country? To learn how to say hello and please and thank you in their languages? To learn how to respect their cultural differences as we do when we travel abroad. To hear their songs and stories, without letting them be coloured by our defensiveness and fear, with hearts open to the possibilities of sharing a future where our own language, culture and way of life our reshaped by those with whom we now share this land.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Dawna Wall is a member of Diocesan Council and travelled to Alert Bay in March for their residential retreat. She is rector at St. Michael and All Angels' Royal Oak and regional dean of Selkirk. She enjoys reading, coffee, conversation and travelling.   Photo by Charles Dobie

For more information about the diocesan Year of Reconciliation and our journey towards truth-telling, healing and reconcilation visit the Sacred Journey page of our website and view "One Step" the documentary about Bishop Logan McMenamie's 580km+ walk of repentence.