Sask. Indigenous couple finds reclamation climbing hill used to punish residential school kids
You won’t find mountains in Saskatchewan, but one couple has scaled their own personal Mount Everest on the Prairies.
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
You won’t find mountains in Saskatchewan, but one couple has scaled a personal Mount Everest on the Prairies.
Philip and Michelle Brass, who live on the Peepeekisis First Nation in Saskatchewan, each climbed to the top of the Qu’Appelle Valley a couple hundred times over the course of a year.
Although it’s not as well known as Everest, the couple chose a hill with a well-known history.
The Lebret hill is nestled in the Qu’Appelle Valley. There’s a small chapel three-quarters of the way up and the stations of the cross mark the steep pathway.
On top of fitness, Philip and Michelle’s quest to conquer the hill also became a way to reclaim it.
The Lebret Indian Residential School was located near the hill. For generations children from the Peepeekisis, Okanese, Star Blanket and Little Black Bear First Nations were taken from their homes and sent to that school or others like it in the area. That included Philip’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Survivors tell of the Lebret Hill being used as punishment. Children from the Lebret school were forced to climb the steep hill, sometimes on their knees.
“I know for a lot of our people, their association with the hill is not a good one. It’s a place of painful memories.” Philip said. “But it’s important for our generation — the first that weren’t stolen from our families and forced to go to that school — to reclaim the space, reclaim it as ours and begin building a new legacy.”
Michele said she used her climbs as a spiritual practice.
“I would climb and think about the children that would have to climb it,” she said.
“I would say prayers as I’d go up.”
Michelle said sometimes residential school survivors would reach out on Facebook to thank the couple for helping them feel better about the place.
The hill makes for a calendar-worthy picture against a deep blue Saskatchewan sky. It was an easy choice for the couple because it’s accessible to the public. It was also on the route to Philip’s work with the Prairie Valley School Division.
It began as a quest for Philip, who was suffering from some serious back pain.
“I wanted to compensate for my weak back, and weak core, so I needed to develop leg strength.”
He ultimately wanted to get in better shape for hunting season. Philip has been an avid hunter his entire life and now Michelle has taken it up as well. The couple are advocates for Indigenous food sovereignty and traditional Indigenous practices.
“I wanted to train my body in a way to prepare me for the activity of carrying a heavy load,” Philip said.
Philip started climbing the hill in August 2019 and quickly set the goal of climbing it 200 times in one year. When climbing became too easy, he started running up the 78 metres. His personal best was two minutes 58 seconds.
When he wasn’t running, he would carry weights up the hill to replicate the process of packing out a big animal after a successful hunt. Gradually he built up to carrying 48 kilograms in a backpack up and down the hill. That’s more than half his body weight.
Philip’s enthusiasm was catchy. Other friends and family, including Michelle and their son, started making frequent visits to the top. Michelle admits the first time was tough.
“At first I just wanted to make it to the top without passing out,” she said. “But once you are up there, the views are amazing.”
Michelle said they just kept going.
“We went again, and again, and again, and I just started to feel better,” she said.
Michelle also set herself a goal of 200 climbs in a year. Meeting their goal meant going in the winter, sometimes twice or three times back-to-back. Philip said his coldest day was –43 C. Michelle had to get to the top several times during a month-long polar vortex the province experienced earlier this year.
Both met their goal. Philip got there first since he started earlier. Together they have climbed more than 31,000 metres, the mathematical equivalent of climbing the height of Everest more than three times.
While they did brave frostbite, at least they didn’t need a sherpa or suffer from oxygen deprivation to accomplish their feat. It may have begun as a nod to fitness, but there’s a sense of accomplishment in completing a difficult goal. As Sir Edmund Hillary of Everest climbing fame said, it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.