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Semiahmoo Secondary hosts reconciliation ceremony for Semiahmoo First Nation

semiahmoo-reconciliation-1.jpgSemiahmoo First Nation drummers performed as part of the reconciliation ceremony at Semiahmoo Secondary on Monday, the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year effort to make reparations with the band. (Photos by Jacob Zinn)

In an ongoing effort to mend ties with the Semiahmoo First Nation (SFN), Semiahmoo Secondary hosted a much anticipated reconciliation ceremony on Monday, addressing the unintentional misappropriation of the band’s name for the school and offering an apology.

The event is the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year journey to understand the historical narrative, correct the past error and rekindle a relationship with the SFN. In 1940, the school opened under the name Semiahmoo Secondary without consultation with or permission from the SFN. Monday’s ceremony marked the acknowledgment of the misuse of the Semiahmoo name for the school, formally seeking the First Nation’s blessing and the opportunity to move forward together in a cultural partnership.

“Our journey to this day has been long, and its arrival overdue,” said Laurie Larsen, Chair of the Surrey Board of Education. “With today’s ceremony, we seek to conclude a journey to heal the pain of the past and to begin a new journey, walking side-by-side, with our neighbours, friends and family of the Semiahmoo First Nation.

“We desire to move forward by embracing the spirit of reconciliation and rekindling a relationship of hope and opportunity between the Semiahmoo First Nation and the Surrey School District.”

In addition to Larsen, Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell, the Surrey Board of Education and Superintendent Mark Pearmain were on hand for the ceremony. The school also invited the youngest SFN graduate of Semiahmoo Secondary and the oldest to attend, symbolizing the harmonizing of the past and the future of both the First Nation, the district and the school.

Over the past several years, the school has worked to understand the Semiahmoo culture, repair its relationship with the Semiahmoo People and begin moving forward with culturally accurate representations through such efforts as redesigning the school logo and renaming the inaccurate Totems sports teams to the Thunderbirds. Now, reconciling over the name of the school is considered the next important step.

“This is something that is bigger than our school,” said vice-principal Robert Dewinetz. “[SFN Councillor] Joanne Charles, in one of the early meetings, commented on how she wouldn’t come here, that the feelings of what was done had hurt her so deeply that she didn’t feel as though she could come in a building named after her people.

“For the district to say, ‘We made a mistake, we are now reaching out to you to reconcile and fix this historical error, and to be able to come together and do that,’ will hopefully make them feel that this school represents them and that they are welcome in it.”

The ceremony began with lunch with attendees – emphasizing the importance of “feeding the body” by sharing a meal together before “feeding the spirit” through the ceremony – followed by performances by SFN drummers and a singing group from the Lummi Nation, as well as a witnessing ceremony.

In addition to these efforts, one of the school’s shop teachers is carving a cedar sign with the traditional spelling of Semiahmoo (SEMYOME), to be displayed as part of the school sign. A bronze plaque is also being prepared to commemorate the event, to be displayed at the entrance to the school.

The school has also received permission from the family of Grand Chief Bernard Charles – a Semiahmoo Secondary alumnus and the first Indigenous student council president of a non-Indigenous school – to create a student award named after him that speaks to his legacy of community service and involvement, and another award under his traditional name, Pa-Kwach-Tun, to be awarded to one of the school’s Indigenous students to celebrate their accomplishments and achievements.

“The students here will get to know who he is because it’s something they’re going to see every year,” said Dewinetz. “I couldn’t be more excited and proud.”

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