Louisa Smith holds up a photo of the Man Who Turned to Stone in Kemano. The Haisla legend reminds people to listen to their elders and ancestral knowledge. (Keili Bartlett / The Northern View)

Heart of Our City: Louisa Smith finds home within

After surviving residential school, Louisa Smith became a counsellor to help others through trauma

As she listened to her clients during their counselling sessions, sometimes Louisa Smith’s body would react to a memory her mind couldn’t remember.

“That was an introduction to the extent of harm the residential school experience was to a wide group of First Nations. To realize that it didn’t only affect the survivors, that the second generation was affected as well,” she said of her first counselling job.

“The more I heard stories, the more I recalled my own experiences. I’m a survivor as well.”

When those memories resurfaced, Smith learned to let herself feel them.

“I ask myself, ‘How old are you, Louisa?’ This was part of my own therapy not to try to assess or try to think, but to let it come,” she said. “It feels like I’m about seven years old, and then I acknowledge that little seven-year-old, because it’s that little girl who’s feeling it.”

Smith was six years old when taken from her home in Kemano to the Alberni Indian Residential School. For the next four years, she was told her mother didn’t love her, and she couldn’t go home. It would be many more years before Smith learned none of this was true: her family had never stopped trying to bring her home.

One summer, she was finally allowed to return to Kemano, only to be taken again. This time her sister went with her, to the residential school in Alert Bay. Smith was only able to leave when she contracted tuberculosis a year later and had to be hospitalized. After an operation in Nanaimo, she was shuttled to another hospital. During her recovery, she was admitted to the hospital in Miller Bay, near Prince Rupert.

“The horrors of that experience adds to the residential school experience. In hindsight, I learned that there was a lot of experiments by doctors,” she said.

Finally, almost 10 years after she was first taken, Smith came home.

“By then, I didn’t know how to speak my language. It was ripped right out of me. I had no inkling about my culture, and I’m embarrassed to say that I was an absolute brat when I got home. In the school, you had to learn to survive so I was always in a defensive mode.

“I had no idea that my experiences had totally changed me internally. My thinking, my behaviour. Everything was just changed… I was an angry, angry person, and I acted it out,” she recalled.

The only person she wouldn’t speak back to was her grandmother. She remembers how her grandmother would “pump” love into her by wrapping an arm around Smith’s shoulders and repeatedly, but gently, squeezing. The gesture feels almost like a heartbeat, and Smith found it very comforting.

When Smith became a counsellor, she would ask her clients to think of someone who made them feel that way, and to find the same positive attributes in themselves.

“The more I learn about my own trauma, the more I’m able to help those that are just beginning to deal with our residential school nightmares. Then realizing the intergenerational effect and dealing with the second generation and giving them the history of what their parents went through,” Smith said.

READ and WATCH MORE: Heart of Our City — Murray Smith is the elder-in-residence

Even though her counselling would often unearth memories that lay dormant in Smith, she continued to help even after the work day ended. She took a leave of absence from counselling for a year to coordinate the repatriation of the G’psgolox totem pole from Sweden. As a member of the board of directors for the Nanakila Institute, she helped save Kitlope from logging, and the area was designated a provincial park.

Closer to home, Smith has been on the board of directors for the Friendship House — twice — and on the board for Restorative Justice. When she retired from those positions and from counselling, she helped train frontline workers in various villages about trauma. She spoke of her residential school experience alongside an academic presentation to contextualize the information, travelling as far as Nova Scotia to share her knowledge.

These days, she sits on two boards, for the Indian Residential School Survivor Society and the Ministry of Children and Family Development elders’ council. Now and then, a school will ask her to be an elder-in-residence or to talk to students and faculty alike about reconciliation.

“You know when the dawn breaks, it’s really dark and then eventually it begins to get lighter and lighter and lighter until the sun is shining. That’s the best way I can describe that residential school,” Smith said. “I’m now standing in the light, in learning and understanding what happened to me and learning how to release it and let it go.”

Once, Justice Murray Sinclair, who was the chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told Smith that reconciliation would only work if it started in the home. Which home he meant — her village, her house or her family — Smith wasn’t sure. She decided, she said as she placed a hand over her chest, home is within.

Read more Heart of Our City profiles here.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Anglers furious over VIP fishing trip

DFO, SkeenaWild both investigating legality of FN research licence to fishing party

Work begins to remove cargo from grounded Haida Gwaii barge and fishing lodge

Westcoast Resorts’ Hippa Lodge broke from its moorings and ran aground early this month

Visibility improvements coming for Prince Rupert’s downtown streets

Work on McBride Street and Second Avenue intersections, crosswalks, will take place this fall

Pipeline challenger says his feelings are irrelevant

The prospect of a federal review has Kitimat and Terrace businesses and residents worried

Prince Rupert receives Softball BC’s association of the year nomination

Association could receive $1,000 and a free coaching clinic as prizes

More than 125 runners take part in Northern View Cannery Road Race

Teen Terrace runners first to finish 5km and 10km, Prince Rupert runner wins 21km race

B.C. home to 1/3 of Canada’s overdose deaths in first 3 months of the year

There were 1,036 overdose deaths in the first three months of the year, with 94 per cent accidental

B.C. candidate moves from hospice care to council race

He beat terminal cancer twice and entered hospice when he decided to run for council.

Canadian tobacco exec pushes back against vaping health concerns

A warning from Interior Health about the unknown health risks of vaping is getting a partial rebuke

Ministry of Agriculture commits $300,000 to help B.C. farmers obtain land

B.C. Land Matching Program supports access to affordable farmland for young farmers

Canadian air force short 275 pilots

Attrition outpaces recruitment and training claims Air Force

Teacher suspended after physically shushing, saying ‘shut up’ to student

Grade 5 student reported feeling ‘confused and a little scared’

A B.C. society helps to reforest Crown land after wildfires

Forest Enhancement Society of BC focuses on wildfire mitigation and the reforestation

Most Read