In December 2016 I listened to “Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?” a CBC podcast by Connie Walker. The podcast focuses on the 1989 death of Alberta Williams on the Highway of Tears near Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The podcast also discusses Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirits (MMIWG2) in Canada and the history of the Highway of Tears. Episode four of the podcast also explores the legacy of residential schools and the long term impacts of residential schools on Indigenous communities, families, and individuals.
This eight part podcast was similar in style to the popular Serial Podcast which used investigative journalism to look at a cold case. I’d also add a warning that it’s not an easy listen and has content that could be triggering to some folks. That being said I think Alberta’s experience, the experience of her family and of so many other MMIW is an experience that needs to be talked about and needs to receive more media coverage.
A Grade 8 teacher in Saskatchewan used the “Who Killed Alberta Williams?” podcast as a teaching tool in his classroom. In that case students responded to the podcast through journals and conversations. I could also see the podcast being used as resource at the high school or post-secondary level as a means of starting conversations about MMIW, residential schools, and colonialism.
Yesterday the Archives of Ontario launched their sesquicentennial exhibit Family Ties: Ontario Turns 150. Running until 2018 the exhibit looks at 150 years of Ontario and what Ontario was like at the point of confederation. The onsite exhibit focuses on four family groups in Ontario during the confederation era. One of those family groups is the Shingwauk family. The exhibit section which focuses on the Shingwauk family and the Shingwauk Indian Residential School contains artifacts and images from the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC).
I couldn’t be happier about the SRSC content being included in this type of commemorative and educational exhibit. Thousands of visitors and students will learn about the Shingwauk family through this exhibit and the Archives of Ontario educational programming.
Here’s a Storify of last night’s live tweet of the opening by the Archives of Ontario
This past weekend the Shingwauk Gathering and Conference was held at Algoma University. This event grew out of the 1981 Shingwauk Reunion and invites survivors, inter-generational survivors, those engaged in reconciliation and healing work, and community members to gather, share, and learn. This year the theme of the Gathering was “Fulfilling the Vision” and focused on present day responses to carrying out Chief Shingwauk’s Vision of teaching wigwams.
Since beginning to work at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC) in 2010 I’ve been fortunate to be part of five Gatherings. My role in the organization of the Gatherings has varied greatly from year to year. Sometimes I acted solely as an archives staff person supporting the work through helping with research requests, other years I helped planned special exhibits for the weekend or helped coordinate the schedule, and other year’s I’ve been responsible for most of the logistical planning of the event.
Most of this work falls under ‘other duties as assigned’ type work and is something I do outside my normal archival related duties. There were a number of comments during this year’s Gathering that resonated with me about the nature of this work:
“I had no idea that working in an archive could be so physical.” -Setup volunteer.
“What do you do the rest of the year when you aren’t organizing this event?” -Participant who was treated to an explanation of archival work.
“You need a fit-bit.” -Participant, after seeing me walk back and forth the length of the school multiple times.
Holding this type of conference is a huge amount of work. But every year I’m left with a feeling that I’ve contributed to something meaningful. The healing work that takes place during the conference is important. The event also continuously highlights the importance of the archival collections at the SRSC in documenting the residential school experience and the healing movement. Every year there are survivors or intergenerational survivors who are returning to the Shingwauk IRS site for the first time. Being able to share with them the history of the site, photographs of the school and possibly photographs of themselves at Shingwauk is an amazingly powerful experience.
For the past couple of years the Gathering has also included youth programming. In this case youth is very broadly defined and tends to include anyone ~35 and younger. This programming is some of my favourite to sit in on, hear about, and help plan. It’s inspiring to see young people engaged in community work, reconciliation, and learning about the history of residential schools. It’s all important work and the involvement of the youth gives me hope that the legacy of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and other survivor based groups will continue for generations.
Regardless of how I’ve been involved at every Gathering I’ve learned something new about residential schools, the survivor experience, and the realities of Indigenous life in Canada. I’m grateful to be welcomed in this space and the lessons I’m continuously learning are important for anyone engaged in archival work that documents residential schools or Indigenous communities. We need to work together as engaged scholars and engaged archivists and learning is the first step toward that.
The August/September issue of Canada’s History magazine contains a short piece I wrote about the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre‘s Remember the Children Photo Identification Project. This project aims to help connect survivors, families, and communities with residential school photographs. It also strives to identify the unnamed students pictured in so many residential school photographs. This is one of the most popular projects undertaken by the Centre and I am constantly grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of it.
I recently wrote a piece for the Canada’s History website about the Remember the Children: Photograph Identification Project that was started by the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. This is a project that is near and dear to my heart. It is one of the initiatives that made me realize the importance of community involvement in residential school archives, the power of images, and the many harsh realities of the intergenerational trauma.
Through this project the SRSC and CSAA have worked to connect communities and survivors with residential schools photographs and to identify people in residential school photographs. Having the opportunity to work with survivors and communities on this project has been a humbling and eye opening experience that I am very fortunate to have worked on.
As the authors point out there are a lot of ethical and professional questions around how work with materials relating to trauma should be done. Collections of trauma in this instance have been defined as intentional collections relating to violent and disruptive histories and the resulting aftermath of those histories. The complexities of residential school archives and the NCTR collection are varied and archivists are still working to determine how best to work with this material.
In particular, I found the article’s section on “Incorporating Distrust” insightful to current challenges. The authors note that, “The same juridical and political systems that conceptualized, created, managed, and perpetuated the harms of the Indian residential school system continue to be forces that shape the work of the NCTR. Canadian universities contributed to the running of the Indian residential schools (eg. training teachers); one such university now hosts the NCTR” (p.115). Many of the same colonial systems that were involved in the residential school era are now involved in the administration of reconciliation policies and the administration of archival collections relating to residential schools. How does an archive existing within this system acknowledge this challenge and respond appropriately.
This tension is something I’ve felt while working within a residential school archive that is housed in a university and is jointly governed by a university. The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is slightly different – being founded through the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and jointly managed by a survivor group. But, it’s physical home is within a university and it exists within a very similar framework as the NCTR. As the authors argued there is a need to acknowledge the distrust that comes with being part of these colonial systems and the need to develop new professional approaches to residential school archives.
How does the historical context of residential schools, intergenerational trauma, and colonialism impact how residential school archives are processed, accessed, and managed? The TRC’s Calls to Action challenges the archival community to look critical at its approach to Indigenous archives and residential school archival collections. This call is something that needs to be examined and responded to as archives continue to struggle with how to best care for this material.
I recently was working with an audio recording from the Cowessess Indian Residential School. The recording was in the form of a seemingly professionally produced record featuring a musical ensemble of Cowessess IRS students. The recording was produced to celebrate the 1967 Canadian centennial. This particular item got me thinking about the handful of other material I’ve come across that relates to residential schools celebrating the Canadian centennial.
At the Shingwauk Residential School the centennial was incorporated in a variety of ways including:
Students putting on the play ‘Arrow to the Moon’ which was written by a staff member.
Participating in the local centennial celebrations, specifically in a local ‘Indian Pavilion’ focused on Indigenous people.
Students created small handicrafts which were then sold at local centennial celebrations. Many of these crafts were seemingly token Indigenous in nature – eg. totem poles and west coast style woodwork.
This seemingly cheery participation in the centennial is a stark contrast to the federal celebrations and the Canadian Indian Pavilion at Expo 67. Created in consultation with Indigenous communities from across Canada the pavilion was designed to show the living conditions of Indigenous people in Canada and highlight the unfairness of Canadian government policies. The Pavilion included a graphic display of a life-sized portrait of an Indigenous family outside of their home with the caption “… and still, too many Indians are poor, sick, cold and hungry. Three out of every four Indian families earn $2,000 or less a year. The poverty line for the rest of Canadian families is $3,000 a year.”
The Expo 67 pavilion was a drastic contrast to the official messaging around the success of the reserve system and residential schools. Unsurprisingly the pavilion was also very different to the celebratory centennial activities seen at residential schools.
If anyone has come across other examples of the types of activities that were done in residential schools as part of the Canada celebration I would be interested in seeing them. They are odd little pieces of the residential school curriculum that highlight the assimilation based education and attempts to instill Canadian pride in IRS students.
 “Message for Canadians At Indian Pavilion”, Indian Record 30, no. 5 (1967): 15. Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Grey Nuns of Montreal Collection.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba officially opened this week. The first day of opening focused on the history of residential schools, reconciliation, and steps for the NCTR going forward. The second day of he opening emphasized education and included the launch of the NCTR website.
Work on the website is ongoing and materials collected by the TRC have just begun to be uploaded to the site. Currently video footage from TRC events and hearings are available and a limited selection of archival materials relating to residential schools has been placed online.
This material was all openly available prior to the launch of the NCTR. But it is now all aggregated on the new NCTR site and integrated into their collection. The national events and hearings were open to the public and some of them live-streamed.
The residential school archival material uploaded to the site is a bit more challenging in nature and is still a work in progress. I found the school narratives created by the Government of Canada that are linked to each school interesting. However these narratives are very analytical and impersonal. They are also include some errors (eg. the Spanish Girl’s School being labeled as St. Anne’s instead of St. Joseph’s).
The NCTR does note on that front page of these school narratives that:
“The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has not verified the content of this document. It is provided here for reference purposes only….You are welcome to contact the NCTR if you wish to add, comment on, or challenge any versions of the history presented herein.”
I was also struck by how each school’s page includes a “Featured Images” and “Related Material” section. The bulk of the Related Material is quarterly return and administrative records from Library and Archives Canada. This material was previously available via LAC and is well documented on the NCTR website with details around origin, dates of creation, author, etc.
Conversely, the featured images are not accompanied by any contextual information or metadata. The complex nature of residential school photography and ownership of these images that were often taken without active consent makes interpreting these images challenging. Providing contextual information is crucial to understanding this history. Ideally survivors and communities should be involved in how to describe, display, and share these images.
The NCTR has the potential to be an amazing resource for communities, educators, researchers and the general public. I know that the website is a work-in-progress but at a first glance I saw a few red flags that need to be addressed in the near future. However I do look forward to seeing how the NCTR’s digital access develops in the future.
The workshop focused on the history of residential schools, the unique challenges of residential school archives, the TRC, and reconciliation more broadly. When planning this workshop I was a bit worried about the range of backgrounds that might be attending and how to include survivor experiences.
Typically when working with high school students at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre I have invited a survivor into the archive or classroom and students learn through their discussion with the survivor. In the case of this workshop the time constraint and location meant this wasn’t possible.
One of the activities I modified from the edu-kit focused on examining the before/after photographs of Thomas Moore. I used a different set of before and after photographs but employed the same type of questions to the workshop participants. Questions about identify, why the photographs were taken, and the impact of residential schools on culture all sparked meaningful discussion. This simple activity worked really well to introduce the topic of residential schools in an engaging manner.
I also incorporated an activity that allowed students to read a first-hand survivor statement about their experience in residential school. This activity brought home the importance of incorporating survivor experiences into the archival record and highlighted the impact of residential schools on individuals, communities, and all of Canada. Allowing students to speak about what they read in small groups and then as a larger group allowed for a range of participation and discussion.
I closed the workshop with a discussion of the Project of Heart and we debriefed while students decorated wooden tiles in memory of a residential school student. This artistic activity allowed me some time to interact with the participants on an individual level and check in on the feelings of the group. There were also a handful of teachers participating in the workshop and this activity served as an introduction into the Project of Heart and allowed me to invite them to engage their classes in the POH initiative.
Overall I was very please with how the workshop went. A short workshop is by no means long enough to cover residential schools in depth. But I feel as though participants left with a deeper understanding of the legacy of residential schools and many of them left with a desire to learn and do more.
A few months ago I wrote about working in a field that involves historical trauma and the need for self care. The topic of self care and the mental toll of working on emotionally charged topics came to the forefront for me earlier this week. I spent a few hours digitizing records and cross referencing the information in these records with our research files. This isn’t an unusual activity for me.
However the set of records I was digitizing were burial permits relating to residential schools. Working in a small archives or conducting historical research can be a very isolating and solo experience. There aren’t always built in support networks for mental health. Maybe there should be. Particularly for those working with topics that deal with historical trauma.
In this instance when I finished this task I took a walk and spent the rest of the day engaged in positive work — planning for a gathering of former residential school students and working on education pieces relating to residential schools. But it’s very easy to get bogged down by work that deals with such an emotionally charged topic. I love the work I’ve been able to do and I am constantly inspired by the resilience of the residential survivors I work with. But there are occasionally difficult days that require reflection and support.
I’d be interested to hear about what self care techniques or mental health support other researchers and historians practice.