Should former Residential Schools be destroyed? Can they be re-purposed and used for healing? Or are they forever a reminder of loneliness and anguish? Could you drive by a place like that in your community day after day?
Some groups of former Residential School students advocate burning down or bulldozing the buildings where they attended class, their residences or the outbuildings where so much pain was inflicted and endured. I understand the point: eliminate the powerful symbol of the pain that was perpetrated, and maybe some of that pain will dissipate as well. It’s been said that images of evil could be seen in the dust and the smoke when Grollier Hall, former dormitory for the Residential School in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, was demolished at the end of the last century.
But as cathartic and cleansing as that may be for some, it turns out that important documents and proof of attendance at Grollier Hall were also destroyed. Once the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement was finalized, former students from those schools included in the agreement were eligible for compensation through the Common Experience Payment. In the cases of some Grollier Hall students, their proof of attendance had also gone up in smoke. It has proven difficult, and sometimes impossible, for some individuals to access the compensation that is owed them.
Fast-forward to 2012 and southeastward to the province of Québec. As in Inuvik, in far-off Sept-Îles, QC, the recent demolition of a certain small outbuilding where shoes were made and repaired may also have helped some find a semblance of closure. Though not officially associated with the nearby Notre Dame/Mani-Utenam Residential School, this is where some of its students were brought to be victimized by the school’s pedophile priest.
At the call of community members and former students, the site was demolished in September as part of a Commemoration event. A spiritual ceremony followed. I’m sure the event brought relief and healing to those who were involved, and I hope it will be more than short-term.
But whenever I hear about a group of Residential School Survivors wanting to “destroy the evidence,” I also hope they have considered an important question: Apart from the practical consideration of destroying proof that the school did in fact exist, could the place or its contents serve to educate others about a historical wrong that should never be forgotten? Perhaps there is something to the view of Holocaust Survivors who insisted on the preservation of the death camps of the Nazis as a lasting memory of the evil they represented. In 50 or 100 years from now, what will we have to prove to those who would deny that this in fact happened, if we destroy the evidence to ease our pain today?
Justice Murray Sinclair, Chairperson
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
For many families in Canada, autumn means back-to-school and the range of emotions that go along with it. For many others across this country, school represents the pain of attempted assimilation, abuse and neglect. For them, school is symbolic of a sad chapter in the history of Canada.
Perhaps most tragic of all, students crossing the threshold of their schools today (with the exception of the NWT and Nunavut, who just adopted curriculum) may never learn about this history. They won’t learn it because it won’t be taught.
Such is the reality and the continuing legacy of the Residential School System.
The students in Canada will not learn about the 150,000 children who were taken from their communities over the course of 150 years so their respective languages and cultures could be erased. They will not read about the villages and camps left empty of children, or powerless parents left on the tarmac or the lake shore as their little ones flew away. Students will not discuss the indoctrination, the abuse, the brutality visited upon the children and the disregard with which their deaths were often treated and the unmarked graves where they were buried, lost forever to their unknowing parents.
The current generation of Canadian students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, is destined to repeat the patterns of generations past. Given the knowledge that has been kept from them, snap judgments will be made and negative stereotypes invoked. This will happen, rightly or wrongly, because nobody ever felt that it was important enough to teach them the difference.
As a Commission, we call for an end to this pattern. We call for a shift from ignorance to Reconciliation. It’s clear from what I’ve told you here that the answer lies in education. Here’s a recommendation from the TRC’s Interim Report (downloadable here):
-The Commission recommends that each provincial and territorial government undertake a review of the curriculum materials currently in use in public schools to assess what, if anything, they teach about residential schools.
-The Commission recommends that provincial and territorial departments of education work in concert with the Commission to develop age-appropriate educational materials about residential schools for use in public schools.
-The Commission recommends that each provincial and territorial government work with the Commission to develop public-education campaigns to inform the general public about the history and impact of residential schools in their respective jurisdiction.
Did you learn anything about Indian Residential School when you were in school?
Do you think the subject of Indian Residential School should be taught in schools?