Ethel Thomas is a Splatsin Elder of the Shuswap Nation.
“We have to earn the title of Elder; it has to do with actions and respect,” Thomas said. “Elders teach and are mentors and encourage others to respect people for who they are, without judgment.”
It was 1950 when she was sent to residential school, as the Canadian Government mandated all First Nation’s children to be forcibly taken, to be educated.
Thomas was one of 14 children. At the age of six, she was taken along with one brother and two sisters to St. Eugene’s Residential School in Cranbrook, B.C. She remembers seeing her mother crying as she left and that image is ingrained in her mind to this day.
When they arrived at the school, the children were separated and not allowed to talk to one another. Girls were sent to one area and boys to another. Her braids were cut off (in some First Nations culture, hair is only cut during close family loss) and she soon learned she would be punished with a strap or yardstick for speaking her own language.
Thomas is a Residential School Warrior.
There are many negative memories from that experience which Thomas gracefully overcame, her resilience and positivity shines today.
She said as a result of the colonial acts, “I grew up feeling ashamed of who I was and I kept my family away from the reserve because of this. But God guides us back to our culture and community, so in 1981, I returned to help my mom after my dad died.”
It was in 1982 that Kukpi7 (Chief) Christian hired her as a family support worker for the newly created Child Welfare Department (the only one of its kind in Canada).
Thomas is proud to state she was one of the original support workers for Stsmamlt Child and Family Services.
“I thank him to this day, as it helped to turn my life around,” she said.
Due to the challenges Thomas had faced in her life, she had turned to alcohol for a few years, but then began walking the red road.
“I chose to be a role model and I stopped drinking in 1985.”
Thomas has been married for 46 years, in total raised 10 children with her husband Leonard. Always modelling how to behave and care for others respectfully, she has 23 grandchildren and 23 great grandchildren.
Through the years, Thomas had other community roles such as Addictions Wellness worker, Elder Mentor and Elected Band Council member. She had key roles which allowed her to support, guide, mentor and work with community and service organizations with the Interior and B.C. regions.
Today, Thomas is still guiding and mentoring in schools about the language and the culture of the Indigenous people.
Thomas said it’s important people are aware of what has happened to her and others like her as “it will create understanding and I hope that people will take something from my story.”
The monthly Community Champion feature is submitted by Respect Works Here, which is an initiative of the Social Planning Council of the North Okanagan. They are also the host agency for the Local Immigration Partnership Council and the Thompson Okanagan Respect Network.