Blog Louis Thomas 2016.jpgWhen Louis Thomas stopped by the Salmon Arm Museum the other day he talked about Secwepemc storytelling and the oral tradition he grew up with. It was a great opening line. I asked him to sit down and retell a story he’d told at the opening of the museum’s C.P.R. exhibit, the Train Stopped Here. He had already agreed that I could use his story, but I wanted to get my facts right.  My tradition wasn’t oral. I needed a keyboard and Louis agreed that I needed his help.

Louis’ relationship with the C.P.R. and the tracks that travel through Salmon Arm was different from anyone else that attended the opening. They weren’t like the romantic memories I had heard that evening.

Louis Thomas was 14 years old when he was sent away to Residential School in Kamloops. He wasn’t impressed with the schooling he’d been receiving in Salmon Arm, but he wasn’t old enough to quit.

His parents had attended the same residential school. Mary Thomas, Louis’ mother, once told me that she went to the Catholic school on the reserve in Kamloops until she was 16. She figured she had earned a grade 4 education when she was done.

It surprised me that Mary would have let any of her kids go to that particular school. She’d been humiliated there, robbed of her language, and punished for stealing food when she was hungry. It was an awful place.

So I asked Louis why his Mom, Mary, let him go.

“She’d have been breaking the law if she didn’t send me,” Louis said evenly. He went on to say that in those days parents were jailed for keeping kids out of school.

Louis was sent to Kamloops in September. He doesn’t have fond memories of the term.  It was a long three months. He didn’t stick around for a report card.

“It was too regimented,” Louis said. “They told me when to get up, when to pray, when to eat.”

“I was used to a freer life on the reserve,” Louis continued. “The reserve was my playground. I enjoyed life there.”

Then Louis dropped a bomb. “They were grooming me for jail,” he said smiling. “I got tired of it.”

So one night Louis packed his small suitcase and snuck out. He walked to the C.P.R. freight yard and looked around for an open empty box car. His heart sank. There were none. Just then he spotted a train leaving. He had to hurry to climb up on a moving car.

“I put my suitcase in front of me as a wind breaker,” Louis said remembering the cold winter night. “It helped a little.”

More than an hour later the train was approaching the steel bridge crossing the Salmon River near Tappen. There was a trail he knew from there to the back of his house.

“I threw my suitcase off,” Louis said. He knew there was sawdust around the mill siding. It would break his fall.

“I did a western roll,” Louis said of his descent from the train. As he tumbled, he noticed the train stopped ahead of him! He didn’t have to jump off.

When I asked Louis if he continued his studies or if he was done with school after that, he smiled. Apparently school wasn’t done with him.

“I went to Vancouver next, I wasn’t old enough to be out of school,” Louis said.

Louis finished his formal education at the Vancouver Vocational Institute. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask him how he got back from schooling at VVI. Truth be told, the mother in me didn’t want to ask