Perfect cursive handwriting – it looks beautiful, but for Sul-ey-el, also known by her English name as Lenny, it reveals a darker truth. For Elders in her Semá:th (Sumas) First Nation community, and in Indigenous communities across Canada, it is a reminder of the residential school system.
“Elders all carry the same traits. It can be eerie,” Lenny says. “When you pass out a sign-in sheet at a meeting, the Elders’ signatures are in perfect cursive writing. Even if they were naturally left-handed, they had to learn to write with their right hand. If they didn’t, they were strapped with a leather belt or hit with a ruler.”
“There can be constant laughter and talking before a meeting but once it is called to order, if they do speak, they all cover their mouths.”
“Sul-ey-el” means “of the land” or “keeper of land” and holds special significance for Lenny. She is the third generation to carry this name, along with her grandmother and aunt, who were and are Semá:th First Nations, and residential school survivors. Lenny’s father is Yeakiwioose First Nation.
Lenny, who is the third generation in her community to be impacted by the residential school system, has always been connected with survivors, through both personal experience, and through her work as an Elders coordinator with the Coqualeetza Elders’ Society. She joined United Way as a United for the Fraser Valley Community Re-builder for Semá:th First Nation in May. Her role grew out of a partnership with Sts’elemqw Residential School Thrivers Society (SRSTS), which was formed by members, including her aunt, and mother, who attended St. Mary’s Mission Residential School on the Pekw’xe:yles (Peckquaylis) Indian Reserve near Mission, BC. For United Way British Columbia, Lenny’s position represents an entirely new way of working.
Indigenous-led community engagement
To support First Nations in the flood-ravaged Fraser Valley, and other regions across the province where natural disasters have struck the past several years, the focus has been to sit, learn, and listen to each of these unique communities before introducing areas where United Way can support when building Indigenous-led community programs and projects. It is part of United Way BC’s work to support Truth and Reconciliation across our province. It is also integral to our Urgent Response Initiative to help people recover from traumatic events by working in and with local communities to address ongoing food, trauma, and mental health needs for residents who are recovering from a natural disaster, and to move forward in their lives with dignity.
“We meet people where they’re at when we’re working with Indigenous communities,” says Alison Gutrath, United Way’s Community Engagement Specialist in the Fraser Valley. “The whole, ongoing and intergenerational impact of residential schools has meant an evolution in how we approach support.”
Earlier this year, Alison connected with Beatrice Silver, an Elder with Semá:th (Sumas) Nation of the SRSTS, who introduced her to the Society’s other members: Chief Alice McKay of Matsqui First Nation; Chief Rhoda Peters of Chawathil First Nation and Yvonne Tumangday of Skowkale First Nation. Between February to May, she worked to build a relationship with the Society, which encourages and develops wellness and educational opportunities for Elder residential school survivors, their children, grandchildren, and future generations. It was here Alison met Lenny and interviewed her for a role as a Community Re-builder.
For Lenny, the role is much more than a job; it’s about healing both for herself and for a people.
About a century ago, the 10 km section of Highway 1 between the Whatcom Road interchange in Abbotsford and the Yale Road interchange in Chilliwack, was part of a vast lake. Indigenous communities gathered on the shores of Sumas Lake to fish and gather foodstuffs. The lake was drained to make way for agricultural activities and a way of life was lost. In the floods of November 2021, on the Sumas reserve, properties were flooded, and roads were closed off to the wider community leaving Elders and other community members vulnerable. Along with the devastation of homes and lands, the flooding also triggered old memories.
“You never know why the Creator brings you somewhere. I’m trying hard to build a relationship with our people and others to live together and to learn from one another. Residential School has stripped us of so much,” Lenny says.
Lenny works closely with the SRSTS and members of Semá:th, as well as other nearby nations. Her goal is to help heal the past.
“My mother and all her siblings have all attended residential schools. There were 12 siblings on my Mom’s side of the family that attended. We had one uncle who came home “in a box”. He attended Port Alberni Residential School; he was 10 years old. It was highly unusual that we were given his remains. My Uncle Ray laid a headstone down for him before he passed away,” she says.
When they gather for meetings, it’s a time of sitting in a Circle, sharing a meal, and talking around the table: laughter, tears, and memories are shared. Lenny attends the meetings to reflect and hold space to support the Elders.
SRSTS is also about the future and bringing cultural awareness to their youth by fostering, revitalizing, and improving inter-generational relations among First Nations individuals; this creates “reconciliation in motion” that provides a healthy community for First Nations members.
“We want people to know not everything has been lost,” Lenny says. “Children and youth are really interested. They haven’t had an opportunity to learn. We want to encourage them to try new things: hunting, fishing, sewing, gathering plants, making medicines, weaving. We get them to try and find out where their gift is. It could be as a singer, a paddle maker, cedar picking… a blood memory might come up, it just comes very automatically, it’s just natural.
“Our Elders have so much to offer. We just need to find a way to bring it back and carry on with our teachings.
“My hope is that people create with their hands and heal with their hands. Healing is what we need to bring back.”
Part of how United Way BC supports this is through Local Love Funds, which Lenny encourages and supports Semá:th members to apply for. It is a learning process that extends from events to specific skills that families can develop together such as filling out forms, budgeting, and thinking creatively.
“Being offered resources with no strings attached is very challenging for us,” Lenny says. “If it’s one of our own then it’s heartwarming. When others (offer) there is a caution in the air, a hesitation. So, I’m seeing much caution and have to chat them up regarding the Local Love Fund. It’s tough to get them to ’let me in’.”
Gaining trust is a big part of Lenny’s job, but it is happening with Local Love funds being used towards the Semá:th Warriors Canoe Club and activities such as jam and Bannock-making with Elders and youth. Funds are also being used to support the SRSTS hosting their first Family Barbeque in September. This event will bring together the families of those that have attended Residential School and let them know that they are not alone and that not everything has been lost.
United Way BC’s work with the Semá:th First Nation is made possible by a $500,000 contribution from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation to the United for the Fraser Valley: Community Re-builders Initiative, which supports several communities affected by floods from last fall and winter. The initiative is a partnership between the Foundation, SRY Rail Link, the Washington Companies, and United Way British Columbia.