Sharing, Healing and Learning: Survivor Driven History

Shingwauk rEsidential School

Shingwauk Residential School, circa 1960. Source: Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.

My latest piece “Sharing, Healing and Learning: Survivor Driven History at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre” was recently published in Education Forum the magazine of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF).

The article discusses the history of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC), the importance of shifting the historical narrative to the Survivor point of view, and the idea of the SRSC as a living archive focused on engagement.  This engagement piece is something that is very dear to my heart and is at the core of my public history and archival practice.

Writing with Education Forum was a great experience.  Many thanks to editor Michael Young for the opportunity and his support throughout the process.

Residential Schools and Present Day White Privilege

Chairs in a Classroom

Image used under CC0 Public Domain License.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to residential school survivor Mike Cachagee speak to a group of 90 grade eight students.  Over the past couple of years I’ve worked with Mike on a regular basis through the educational programming undertaken at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  Mike often comes in to speak to students about residential schools, his experience as a survivor, reconciliation and colonialism. His talks are always a little different and each time I leave feeling grateful for his wiliness to share his experience and perspective in the classroom setting.

During Mike’s most recent talk when discussing colonialism and the corrosion of Indigenous communities through residential schools he made a direct connection between white privilege and the colonial system.  I was struck by how this is the conversation we need to be having in the classroom.  The Indian Act, the reserve system, residential schools, the 60s scoop and so many other instances of historical colonial policy have had a direct impact that is still being felt by Indigenous communities.  We know this.  But there is still a huge tendency to treaty these historical policies as things of the past despite the fact that they still have very real implications for Indigenous communities and Canadians at large. Colonial policies are closely related to so much of the white privilege that exists today – the land we live on, the current funding structure of education, the health care we receive and so much more is connected to historical policies.

During his discussion with the grade eight students Mike also highlighted the fact that he wasn’t trying to blame current white settlers for things that their ancestors did.  However, he was clear that the burden of building new relationships, changing policies going forward, and learning about the basics of colonialism and privilege lies firmly on the shoulders of white-settlers not marginalized communities.  The discussion of reconciliation is one that requires all sides to participate and settlers need to be doing the background work themselves.

I spoke with a handful of the teachers present during Mike’s talk and many indicated that the talk inspired them to take a look at how they are approaching residential schools in the classroom space.  One teacher indicated that they would be having a class discussion about how residential schools impact society today when they returned to the classroom. Personally, I know one way that we have often encouraged teachers to teach residential schools is to follow up with a conversation about present day impacts of residential school, a discussion of ongoing educational inequalities, and connect to social justice issues (such as Idle No More, MMIWG2S, or Shannon’s Dream).

How do you connect residential school history to present day realities in classroom?

Remember the Children and Canada’s History

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.

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

NCTR

Screenshot of nctr.ca

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.

Archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Workshop

I recently facilitated a workshop on Archives and the TRC as part of Huron History Day: An Active History Pre-Conference for High School and First Year Students.

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.

This ended up being a blessing in disguise.  It caused me to think critically about engagement and turn to other great educational resources.  I modified and incorporated two of the activities from the 100 Years of Loss edu-kit created by the Legacy of Hope Foundation and drew on Project of Heart resources.

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.

Self Care Revisited

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.

Redress and Reconciliation: The Legacy of Residential Schools

Yesterday I attended a panel at Algoma University focused on residential school and reconciliation.  The panel, “Redress & Reconciliation in the face of Post-Apology Revelations”, was standing room only and featured four residential school survivors, two inter-generational survivors, and historian Ian Mosby.  

The panel participants were invited to speak about their thoughts on Harper’s apology to residential school survivors, reconciliation, and relations following the apology.  The first two survivors to speak, Mary Hill and Fran Fletcher Luther, both emphasized that they thought Harper didn’t truly believe the words of the apology, that the words he spoke didn’t come from the heart, and that he didn’t write the apology.  Mary Hill also said she felt disappointed that the apology didn’t acknowledge those survivors who have already passed on. 

The two inter-generational survivors spoke of the long term impacts of residential schools on communities and the need to acknowledge the on-going damage.  They pointed to the ongoing legislation that is marginalizing indigenous people and then need for a true apology to be followed up with actions.  Mitch Case highlighted the need for truth.  He argued that reconciliation cannot begin until the truth is out there and accepted. 

The inter-generational impacts of the residential school system have been devastating and is something that needs to be acknowledged and discussed more.  The inclusion of two inter-generational survivors on the panel helped highlight the need for more open discussions and brought attention to current legislation that is marginalizing indigenous communities.

One of the most moving parts of the panel was listening to Mike Cachagee speak about his experience at residential school, his work with the government leading up the residential school settlement agreement, and the residential schools survivor movement.  Mike spoke about starving at residential school and the physical and emotional pain caused by starvation. 

Mike also told an anecdote in which he was questioned about why he was publicly speaking against the residential school settlement agreement.  He asked government officials if they had children and if so what price could they put on their love for their child.  Predictably, the individuals said you couldn’t put a price on love.  Mike response was ‘But you have.  You paid me $3,000 a year for my attendance at residential school.  $3,000 a year for being deprived of my parents love, for being taken away from my family.’ 

I’ve heard Mike tell this experience to other groups.  But every time this example is gut wrenching.  The compensation of the residential school settlement agreement did not fix things and can in no way make up for what happened in residential schools.  Mike’s pointed words highlight an underlying dissatisfaction many have with the apology, the settlement agreement, and current discussions of reconciliation. 

The panel closed with the resilient words “They can’t take our spirit.  They couldn’t take our souls.”  I have worked closely with the survivors who were on this panel for the past five years.  I have heard them speak about their residential school experiences countless times.  But each time they speak I learn something new and I am reminded of the importance of truth telling and the need for us to listen to each other.  Reconciliation takes two sides.

Ongoing Challenges: Paper Writing and Committee Work

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Prompt: Challenges.  What did you wrestle with in 2014?  What did you learn?  What challenges do you foresee in 2015?

This past year I wrestled with how to turn down great projects that I simply didn’t have time to do justice to. In 2015 I foresee a few new challenges including:

  • Finalizing a paper on sports images and residential school archives.  This was one of the few projects I took on part way through 2014, as it draws directly on a lot of the work I’ve done with the Rev Father William Maurice fonds in the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  
  • I’m continuing to be part of a couple of public history committees and part of a conference organizing committee. There will be lots of planning and implementation work in the next year relating to those commitments.
  • I will be returning to work in June 2015 after taking seven months off as maternity leave.  This will be another huge life/work adjustment. 

Everyday Heroes

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Today’s prompt: Hero: Who was your hero this year? Tell us why. What makes a hero in your eyes?

 The residential school survivors I have had the opportunity to work with over the past few years are a constant source of inspiration.  Many of these individuals are in their 60s, 70s, or 80s yet they continue to be advocates for awareness around the legacy of residential schools.

They were founding members of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and have promoted education and healing around residential schools since the mid 1970s. Many of these elders routinely speak about their residential school experience to indigenous and non indigenous audiences.  For students of all ages this can be a powerful learning experience and is often the thing that makes them realize the lasting impact of residential schools.

These kind and generous people are heroes in my mind. They have worked tirelessly for years to raise awareness about residential schools and many have worked to promote healing within their own communities. I only hope I have nearly as much energy when I’m their age. 

Orange Shirt Day

September 30, 2014 is the second annual Orange Shirt Day.  The day grew out of a residential school commemoration event held in Williams, Lake BC in Spring 2013.  During this event Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, a Survivor of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School described her experience of arriving at the residential school and having an orange shirt that was bought for her by her grandmother taken away from her.

Speaking about her experience Phyllis said that “the colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing.  All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”  Phyllis complete story can be viewed here.

As a result of Phyllis’ experience and the 2013 commemoration event Orange Shirt Day was created as a way to inspire conversation around residential schools and reconciliation.  Similar to the anti-bullying pink shirt campaigns, the Orange Shirt Day/Every Child Matters campaign encourages people to wear orange and begin discussing the issues behind the cause.  Many school boards across Canada are using this as an opportunity to begin discussions of residential schools in their classrooms.  More information about Orange Shirt Day can be found on their website and facebook page.