Archie Chantyman is trying to walk it all back.
The elder from the Lhoosk’uz Dene Nation is carrying his residential school baggage back to the scene of the crimes, and when he leaves, he hopes he can carry away the spirits of those who didn’t escape.
Chantyman set out on Sept. 5 from his home in Lhoosk’uz territory on what he scheduled to be an 11-day trip to the site of the St. Joseph’s Residential School where he was interned for nine years. It is a 319 km journey, on foot, and a decades-long journey in mental distance.
He is packing humour along with him. When asked if he had a cell phone on the trip he said he could be reached by “smoke signals.” When someone inquired about the significance of the feathers attached to his walking stick, he squinted stoically and replied, “it just looks cool.”
Chantyman first walked from his home to the Nazko community (72 kms, three days), then on to Quesnel (108 kms, four days), then on to Williams Lake and west the short distance to the site where generations of Indigenous children from the Cariboo and Chilcotin areas were concentrated, in the federal government’s attempt to expunge the national and cultural identity out of First Nations.
He’s not able to talk about what happened to him, personally. That’s not to be confused with “won’t” or “doesn’t feel like it,” he literally can’t remember vast chunks of what, for most children, are vivid times of life.
“It’s all numbed out. Sometimes little things come up when people share their stories. It’s just a condition,” he said. What does come to mind are the severe strappings, and the names he and his classmates would be called by the staff: savages, lice-infested, other pejorative terms. Of the nine students at the school in his age group, at the time, only he and three others remain alive. He is only 62.
His most recent birthday was Sept. 5, the day he departed on the walk. He left with little planning, just a few conversations that stemmed from thoughts of his annual milestone combined with other elements of life’s biggest impressions, such as the passing of an important family member.
“It’s in memory of my late uncle Robert Jimmie,” Chantyman said. “The idea came to me when my uncle Robert talked about walking. He wanted to travel from Lhoosk’uz to the residential school, so I took on the task, to finish his legacy for him.”
But the walk is about much more than just honouring his beloved uncle.
“A lot of people didn’t make it, so that’s the other thing that we’re walking for, is the spirits we will be carrying back from the residential school. We have a basket,” he said, for sacred transportation of the spirits who want to leave and go back to ancestral territory. “The purpose of this walk extends beyond personal healing. It is a profound gesture intended to help the Lhoosk’uz Dene Nation heal as a whole. By returning the pain to its place of origin, I hope to facilitate collective healing, letting go, forgiveness within our community. It is through forgiveness that we can all move forward, not only healing ourselves but also seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt along the way.”
The walk inspired others. Despite sleeping in tents in random spots alongside the highway, as their grassroots accommodation, a contingent of followers began to join him for segments along the route. When he started, he was accompanied only by friends Mateo Rojas and Freddie Clement, his sister Rosa Chantyman, and Clement’s wife Penny and sister Marilyn. By the time they reached Kersley, there were dozens of companions with a convoy of support vehicles.
“As a survivor of the residential school system, I have carried the burden of misery, hurt, and shame for far too long, just like many other survivors in our community,” he said, indicating all those who have their own reasons for walking to St. Joseph’s, or whatever residential school is connected to their lives.
“I aim to shed the painful teachings of the past and release the deep-rooted pain that we, the survivors, have carried with us since our time in the residential school system,” he said. “I want to lay to rest the burdens, the misery, the hurt, and leave it there. We are packing it. We want to lay it down. There is a ceremony going to be held. That’s in the hands of the Williams Lake First Nation, I’m leaving it in their hands, that’s their field, on their traditional territory.”
Chantyman is the son of Edward Sandyman and Agnes (John) Jimmy, grandson of Sophie and Mosie Sandyman and the great-grandson of Bernard Sandyman. He wants to lift up their names with his constructive act of healing.