Heart of the City: Tell Us When They Came elevates survivor’s story

Kat Zu’comulwat Norris’s life is a tale of triumph over the impact of Canada’s residential school system

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      (This article may be triggering for some people. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.)

      This past summer, Penelakut Island was in the news for reasons that have become all too familiar.

      This southern Gulf Island, which is just 8.66 square kilometres in size, was the site of the notorious Kuper Island Indian Residential School. It was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969, when it was taken over by the federal government.

      According to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, a former employee of the school pleaded guilty to three counts of indecent assault and gross indecency in 1995. And this July, the Penelakut Tribe revealed that 160 “undocumented and unmarked” graves had been found on the site.

      One of the school’s survivors is Kat Zu’comulwat Norris, a longtime Vancouver resident, elder, and member of the Lyackson First Nation. She has described Kuper Island as “the Alcatraz of the residential schools” and a “torture chamber”.

      After being sexually abused in childhood by a priest, Norris has shared her story with others in an effort to help them heal from the trauma of their past.

      “I’ve learned to embrace my experience because I survived,” Norris told the Straight by phone. “I have children, I have grandchildren that I want to inspire.”

      She doesn’t use the term victim to describe herself. Instead, she called herself a survivor of a prisoner-of-war camp. In this camp, a.k.a. the Kuper Island Indian Residential School, she only tried calling her parents once, even though she was filled with loneliness. That’s because her jailers would sit and listen to her calls. And if she wrote a letter, they would read it.

      Norris said that this year she felt she could finally “exhale” once the world started learning about the unmarked and undocumented remains at former Indian residential school sites. That’s because the truth was plain for everyone to see.

      “As a spokesperson for my people, I spent decades talking to groups, talking to schools, talking to universities—sharing and trying to enlighten them as to our real experience and trying to advance the beauty of our true history,” Norris said. “I want the world to see that we’re real people but we were hit by a government intent on keeping us down.”

      She has done this work in many ways—as a counsellor, theatre artist, host of an SFU radio show, and community builder. She said that she’s still working on her healing journey while coping with lupus, which is an invisible autoimmune disability.

      In the past, she’s been diagnosed with chronic depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder, but nowadays she’s incredibly upbeat and laughs easily.

      “We have a strong work ethic in my family, from my grandfather, who was a fisherman, and my mother after him,” Norris noted. “We were always taught to keep busy. That’s a big part of what kept me going.”

      In addition to providing healing drumming sessions for Theatre Terrific, which works with artists with disabilities, Norris has a long relationship with the Heart of the City Festival. It dates back to the 2003 theatrical work In the Heart of the City: the Downtown Eastside Community Play, which inspired the festival’s creation the following year.

      “I got to wear this beautiful, pink, flouncy long gown,” Norris recalled with a laugh. “I was prancing around and I just had so much fun.”

      In recent years, Norris has been the festival’s artist in residence. And this year, she’s contributing a 20-minute work of theatre and storytelling, Tell Us When They Came, to a Heart of the City Festival event called Indigenous Journeys: Solos by Three Women. Her work is directed by her brother, Vancouver-based actor Sam Bob.

      David Cooper

      One of the other shows is Chemukh’s Dream, written and performed by Priscillia Mays Tait, who traces her ancestry to the Babine, Gitxsan, and Wet’suwet’en nations. The other show, The dance within the dance is the dance, is a work-in-progress written and performed by Gunargie O’Sullivan, a.k.a. ga’axstasalas, of the Kwakuilth Nation.

      According to Norris, Tell Us When They Came will reveal her people’s story through her experiences, ranging from the way they used to live on the land to the system of First Nations reserves and Indian residential schools.

      In her interview with the Straight, Norris teared up as she thought about the impact of colonialism, residential schools, and the so-called ’60s Scoop on young Indigenous people today.

      “Our youth are still struggling out there,” she said. “That legacy is still hitting our kids today. A lot of our younger people are trying to find themselves.”

      She described the legislation crafted by governments to suppress Indigenous people as “ingenious” because it was so devastatingly effective as a tool of colonization. Children were separated from parents. In the residential school, she was also separated from her brothers.

      Today, as a result of this, she insists on telling her two sons and two granddaughters that she loves them every time they leave one another’s presence. And they say the same thing back to her.

      “When you say you love yourself, that’s an act of defiance,” Norris explained. “When you tell your children that you love them, that’s an act of defiance.”

      She added that even hugging one’s parents is an act of defiance. “All of those things were taken away from us,” she noted.

      Fear was imprinted on her and other children in the residential school. And she is doing all that she can, including through her work in theatre and through counselling others, to try to erase that legacy.

      “We went through hell and we continue to go through hell, but we’re still here,” Norris said. “And we stand strong and we’re learning to use our voices.”

      Video: The Heart of the City's artist in residence, Kat Zu'comulwat Norris, offers a welcoming message at this year's festival.
      Kat Norris prerecorded Tell Us When They Came at the Firehall Arts Centre as part of Indigenous Journeys: Solos by Three Women. It will be presented online on Zoom with Chemukh’s Dream and The dance within the dance is the dance at 7 p.m. on November 3. This will followed by a live question-and-answer session with the artists as part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which runs until November 7.