Stencilled onto brick walls the colour of dried blood, images of young boys in black robes stare with ghostly eyes. One, half-hidden in a stairwell, wears an upside-down cross on his chest. Another, lurking in a corner, drips tears of blood.
The haunting figures, spray-painted onto St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C., are a spontaneous memorial to a dark era when thousands of Aboriginal children were removed from their homes and forced into an education system designed to assimilate them into the dominant culture.
The stencilled boys, like the students they represent, are no longer there. The former school, which the Anglican Church of Canada operated from 1929 to 1974, was demolished in March. Like so many of Canada’s former residential schools, it was a mess of asbestos, wood rot, black mould, broken windows and graffiti. And like so many former residential schools, its presence reminded survivors of their stolen culture, language and identity, their broken familial bonds and, in some cases, the physical or sexual abuse they endured.
Of the 139 former Indian residential schools in Canada, an unknown number still stand. The Assembly of First Nations is intent on finding all of them — standing or demolished — and plotting their location by GPS, before the memories are lost.
Many of the century-old buildings have been torn down. Some have become offices for First Nations; others stand but are abandoned; one (the old St. Eugene school in Cranbrook, B.C.) was renovated into a golf resort and casino owned and run by the Ktunaxa Nation; and at least a couple have been replaced with buildings that serve former students, such as the Nechi Institute, an Indigenous learning centre in St. Albert, Alta.
For many residential school survivors, demolishing these buildings is about hope for the future. But such hope, many would argue, also lies in non-Aboriginal Canadians grappling with past atrocities and the misguided intentions that led to them. Without the ominous physical presence of buildings such as St. Michael’s, will non-Aboriginal Canadians carry the weight of the memories?
One month before St. Michael’s was torn down, a ceremony to commemorate
the building attracted 500 people, including dozens of survivors, as
well as church leaders, both Anglican and United. Among them was United
Church minister Rev. Bob Burrows. Back in the early 1960s, Burrows
commuted by float plane to congregations within his multi-point charge —
including Bella Coola and Alert Bay. St. Michael’s, though
Anglican-run, housed many students with ties to the United churches in
their home communities. These students were allowed to walk to Burrows’s
church twice a month. Coincidentally, this spring Burrows took a
three-month contract at Bella Coola United. He accompanied 14 survivors
and 20 other adults to the February ceremony.
“When a front-end
loader knocked down St. Michael’s porch, quite a few people had tears in
their eyes,” says Burrows. The day of ceremonies included dancing,
drumming, speeches, the Lord’s Prayer, a cleansing ceremony for
survivors and a feast of locally caught crab, spot prawns, fried
eulachon, salmon, roe and abalone. It also included an invitation for
survivors to throw stones at the building. Several people did.
I talked to them [survivors] afterwards, those tears were about, ‘Okay.
I’m beyond that now,’” Burrows says. “It was a brilliant idea to have
that kind of a celebration that was putting away memories. It was two
days of driving there and back with people in their 70s and 80s. But it
was really important for them to be there.”
Namgis First Nation
Chief Debra Hanuse, who represents the Aboriginal people of Alert Bay,
said the school’s demolition was itself an act of reconciliation. “The
generations of children who passed through the doors of the St.
Michael’s residential school will not be forgotten,” she stated in her
remarks before the ceremonies.
Demolishing schools, of course,
means they can’t be encountered by those who never attended them. For
Rev. James Scott, visiting a former residential school in 2004 “moved
this history from a head experience to a heart experience.” As part of
his work as the General Council’s officer for Indigenous justice and
residential schools, Scott toured Mohawk Institute Residential School in
Brantford, Ont., guided by survivor Geronimo Henry.
got to the basement, he took us into a concrete room and stood at one of
the windows, looking down a long tree-lined driveway,” says Scott. “He
said that when he was in the school, he and the other children, from the
middle of June on, would go into that room and stand at those tall
windows to watch for their parents coming to take them home for the
summer. Successively, parents would come. By the second week of July, he
would realize that no one was coming for him. That story just stuck in
my heart and my mind ever since. That reality. You start to realize how
very sad these places were — quite apart from abuse and humiliation.”
says money is available for memorials through the United Church’s
Justice and Reconciliation Fund. So far, no one has applied to preserve a
residential school building — but the program is open to it.
in the world, sites of violent injustice are retained for collective
memory and repentance. For example, South Africa’s Robben Island, where
Nelson Mandela spent 18 years as a prisoner, welcomes visitors. So does
Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site
in Poland. Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is housed in a former
Khmer Rouge execution centre. In the United States, the Carlisle Indian
Industrial School in Pennsylvania has been designated a National
Not one residential school is on the list of
Canada’s 950 National Historic Sites. Other memorials of residential
schools are many, but scattered.
A $20-million residential
schools commemoration fund, part of the 2007 class-action settlement
agreement, has been spent on 143 projects — including a stained glass
piece in the House of Commons commissioned to remember the 2008
Government of Canada apology. Other projects include gatherings, books
and films, exhibits and memorial gardens. When the rubble is cleared at
St. Michael’s, a garden and playground may replace it.
spring, the Assembly of First Nations offered 139 markers to First
Nations communities that had children taken. The original plan involved a
plaque on each former school ground. However, so many of the schools
are gone or in private hands that the project changed course, explains
the AFN’s Kathy Kettler, who is co-ordinating the project.
made sense to place [the markers] in the communities, rather than in
these remote locations,” says Kettler, an intergenerational survivor of
the schools. “Some people don’t want to go to the place they went to
The Aboriginal artists who were
commissioned to create the markers also had a different vision than the
typical historical plaque. “We collectively decided to depart from the
western concept of heritage commemoration and designation,” reads the
artists’ statement, “and instead create a dynamic and versatile marker
as much celebrating achievements as honouring loss; significant for
survivors and communities, past, present and future.” The markers are
intricate bronze hoops accompanied by sticks. They’re designed to be
Temporary and travelling historical exhibits, web pages,
school curricula and other relatively short-lived projects have emerged
over the past few years. Larger in scope are the United Church’s The
Children Remembered project, as well as a travelling art installation
called the Witness Blanket (currently at Ottawa City Hall until July
10). In Alberta, both the Fort Normandeau Interpretive Centre and the
Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery feature permanent residential school
Burrows recalls visiting Alert Bay’s U’mista Cultural
Centre with his daughter 30 years ago, built adjacent to St. Michael’s.
The centre houses exhibits about the banning of the potlatch, or
traditional feast, and Burrows says the displays helped his then teenage
daughter realize the horror that was visited on First Nations.
Cecile Fausak, General Council’s liaison minister with residential
schools, says that while exhibits can be powerful, school buildings are
more complex. Some survivors see them as grim reminders of an ugly past
and believe they should be torn down. Others believe they should remain
as monuments to their story.
“I wouldn’t presume to enter into
that discussion,” says Fausak, noting that survivors should decide how
to memorialize the era. “I hope that just because the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission has come to an end, that people will not
think, ‘Okay, we’ve collected the stories and we don’t need to do that
anymore.’ There will always be the next generations that need to know
this part of our history as well. There are still many people who have
not heard the stories or taken them into their heart.”
At Alert Bay, four storeys of deep red bricks, broken glass and graffiti have been erased off the shoreline.
You’d almost never know the school was there. Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Observer with
the title "Grim reminders."
more of The United Church Observer's
award-winning content, subscribe to the