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‘It’s our time to take on some of the burden’ says the young Kwakwaka’wakw man, who ran 216 km in the wake of residential school grave discoveries
Sasha Perron is a runner. He’s a hockey player who paid for university with money from commercial fishing. He can hold a tune, he was a French immersion student, and his mother used to feed him spoonfuls of eulachon grease when he was sick.
He’s also the first generation in his family who wasn’t forced to go to a residential school.
Earlier this year when the remains of 215 children were discovered at the Kamloops residential school, Perron was overwhelmed. His mother, aunties, and even great grandparents are survivors from the schools that were a weapon in genocide.
The national conversation that discovery has sparked has re-traumatized many survivors and their families, and while Perron learned more about his family’s experience, he wanted to take on some of the burden.
Someone near Kamloops started running 215 kilometers, and invited folks to join in. Perron had been looking for something to do, and that invitation was it. Perron ran 216 kilometres—one extra for all the children who haven’t been found—in 18 days, raising more than $17,000 for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. For the non-runners among us, that’s over five full marathons in less than three weeks.
At the time, he’d never run a marathon before.
“It inspired me to do more, to show youth and people of my generation that it’s our time to take on that torch, and take on some of the burden from the older generation. Because they’ve been leading the way for a long time,” he said.
Perron invited people to join him on his daily runs, and many did. One memorable day, two men from Saskatchewan whose parents had been survivors ran with Perron the day after more than 700 unmarked graves were found at the Marieval residential school there. “We ran really hard that day,” Perron said.
Movement is medicine, he believes, so running is more than just pounding feet. This week he gave a presentation to a group of high school students, and his talk followed the advice he gives for people just learning to engage with all of this
First, locate yourself: What land are you on? What language is spoken here?
He pulled up a map of Vancouver Island and asked the group for the names of any First Nations groups. “Coast Salish?” someone ventured shyly, after long seconds of silence.
Coast Salish is the group of Indigenous nations on the South Island and much of the Lower Mainland. On the mid-Island, there is Nuu-Chah-Nuth people, which includes the Pacheedaht Nation in Port Renfrew. And on the North Island is the Kwakwaka’wakw people, where Perron’s family is from.
He talked about the eulachon harvest, and how his tribe, the Da’naxda’xw, would invite all the 17 other Kwakwaka’wakw tribes to come harvest the prized oily fish in Knight Inlet. Somewhat like herring, the fish is valued for its healthy fat. Eulachon grease was a rich trade item, and was a major part of the economy before colonial policies deliberately separated Indigenous people from their wealth.
Perron described how the Indian Act made way for residential schools, and waged cultural genocide on Indigenous people, intentionally separating them from their wealth and power.
“My uncle says that, yes, we had inter-tribal violence, but it was always the men who would fight. But Canada targeted our children, our women, our matriarchs,” Perron said.
“I can’t imagine how hateful these people must have been that put these institutions into place.”
He brought his grandmother Lily with him, and would occasionally ask her questions—what was the name of the 10-moon ceremony? How do you say “that’s it?”
Lily, whose traditional name is spelled something like Ulumgilakw, told me she grew up in a small village with about 10 other families. Her education was rudimentary but she dreamed of becoming a nurse, and she made it. She first became a licenced practical nurse, but that wasn’t enough for her, so she went back to school to become a registered nurse. She graduated at 52 years old.
Looking at her grandson, also her Kwak’wala language student, she simply says, “He’s very determined.”