Dianne Oppenheim was working behind the counter of the local Dixie Lee restaurant when a middle-aged man and woman entered. They looked at the young waitress disparagingly, then ordered ice-cream cones. Oppenheim took two cones from the dispenser and wrapped tissue around their stems. The couple told Oppenheim that they did not want the cones—because she had touched them. Instead, they asked that she serve their ice cream in bowls. Oppenheim picked up a bowl by its base. The couple insisted that they would select their own bowls—and hold them while she scooped in the ice cream. “I was so mad,” recalls Oppenheim. “I walked straight back to the boss’s office and told her that if those people had something against the color of my skin, I was not going to serve them.” The incident did not take place in Arkansas in the
1950s, but in Merritt, B.C., in August, 1991. The couple was white. Oppenheim, now 19, is a proud member of the Coldwater Band of the Nkl’kumpx nation, an Interior Salish people who, with limited resources but evident determination, are striving to combat the damaging effects of racism on their youth.
Prejudice is one of the extra challenges that Oppenheim and other natives confront in their teen years. The Coldwater reserve—7,000 rolling acres along the Coldwater River 275 km northeast of Vancouver—is scarred by widespread sexual abuse and alcoholism. Like other reserves across Canada, it also suffers from endemic poverty, with an unemployment rate of 75 per cent—compared to British Columbia’s average of 9.8 per cent. For the reserve’s teens, those stark realities can make the difficult process of growing up even more traumatic. “There had to be something done,” says
Gordon Antoine, chief of the 550-member Coldwater Band. In 1984, in an effort to address at least some of the problems, the band started its own school. “Our children’s eyes didn’t have a sparkle in them,” says Antoine. “We decided that our main objective was to put a shine, to put life back in those eyes.”
Before the establishment of the school, Coldwater’s children were educated off the reserve, where they say they encountered the kinds of problems that natives often face in white Canadian society. “We weren’t making it in the system,” Antoine says. “Society has begun to believe that we are something absolutely different. We have to work on counteracting the systemic racism in notions like, ‘You’re an Indian kid, you don’t know any better; you’re from a culture that doesn’t speak out; you’re from a culture that is not technologically based.’ We are trying to counteract that with the notion, ‘Hey, you’re a great kid.’ ” Apathy: The school’s staff had their work cut out for them. Joseph Kalfics, 49, who was bom in the Netherlands, remembers his pupils’ apathy when he began teaching at Coldwater in 1985. “The intermediate class, the 13to 15year-olds, were quiet—there was no expression on their faces.” They had a “negative image of themselves,” Kalfics says, adding: “Just five years ago, of 10 students, I might have four or five that could be called ‘high-risk suicides.’ One did commit suicide in 1987.” Since then, he says that the situation has improved remarkably. “Now, of 10 students, I might have one, maybe two, that are ‘high risk.’ Now, the students are alive, vibrant— and curious.”
Part of the school’s success can be attributed to its emphasis on native self-pride. Last fall, the students went on a one-week camping trip during which they built traditional shelters and hunted game. Every school day, for a half-hour, they study their native language, also called Nkl’kumpx. Janice Antoine, the school's principal and the wife of Chief Antoine, says that over the years many natives almost came to believe that “we are no longer human.” At the Coldwater reserve, she says: “What we want the students to know, with absolute certainty, is that as a human being, ‘Yes, I have value and
who I am is more than good enough to be a member of the greater society.’ ”
The message has clearly been heard—but some of the problems remain. Fear of sexual assault, Janice Antoine says, remains far greater among native girls than among other Canadian teens. “There is still the stereotype of racism that Indian girls can be raped and it’s OK,” she says. Her husband acknowledges that problems of sexual abuse persist. “To be brutally frank,” Chief Antoine says, “there has been a great deal of sexual abuse between older people and children in this community.” In response, the school’s teachers now offer regular counselling, encouraging students to speak out and seek help if they are the victims of sexual abuse. Drug-and-alcohol counsellor Michelle Rasmusson, who works with Coldwater teens as well as members of four other Indian bands, says those efforts are paying off: “The Coldwater kids are quite verbal and in touch with their feelings. It’s not a secret any more— they can talk freely about these things.”
They also talk about things that preoccupy most teenagers. In the school, with the morn-
ing intermediate math session just completed, 10 students chat before the start of lunch hour. They discuss sports, music—and an upcoming dance in Merritt, 13 km to the east. All of them want to go; Novalee Voght, 13, checks her ticket in her purse. But the conversation then turns to last fall’s scheduled Halloween dance in Merritt—cancelled after the local RCMP learned of a possible battle brewing between local white and East Indian teens. Both of those groups, Voght contends, treat natives with disdain. She returned to the Coldwater school in December after spending three months in a Merritt public school. “The people are prejudiced there,” Voght maintains. “It was coming from the East Indians and the whites.”
For all the obstacles they face, the Cold-
water teens appear determined to pursue their dreams. Jonathan, 13, says that he wants to be a professional hockey player. Kirk, also 13, would like to go to college, study flying, perhaps become a fighter pilot. Dianne Oppenheim’s 17year-old sister, Tanya, who recently gave birth to a baby daughter named Felicia, has a Grade 10 education but says that she wants to go back to school when Felicia is a little older. Her older sister’s plans are more formulated. After she graduates from the Coldwater school in the spring with a Grade 12 diploma, Dianne Oppenheim plans to move to Kamloops, 75 km northeast of the reserve, to take law and computer courses at Cariboo College. “I’m scared of going out on my own,” she admits. “It
will be different not coming home every night.” But she realizes that she must leave to reach her ultimate goal: “to be a lawyer.”
Blueprint: The Coldwater kids say that they all share one dream: to design a new, and permanent, school building. The students have already drawn up a blueprint patterned on their tribe’s traditional si’stkin—a circular, sunken structure with a log base and domed roof, through which extends a ceremonial notched pole. Their design calls for a concrete building, with a gymnasium in the middle of the belowground level and classrooms radiating from it. That pattern will repeat on the second floor, with a large open foyer overlooking the gym. The Coldwater band is committed to constructing a new school, and the students hope that elements of their design will be incorporated into the final structure. They plan to have a model ready by spring to present to the band council. It is a clear measure of their pride in their heritage—and their pride in the school that has changed their lives for the better.
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