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How should we remember residential schools in the North?


Earlier this month, the federal government announced the creation of two new national historic sites: one former residential school in Manitoba, and another in Nova Scotia.

The designations were a response to calls for commemoration issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, as part of its final report in 2015. The aim, Ottawa said, is to ensure residential schools and the pain they caused is never forgotten.

Wednesday is Orange Shirt Day, a day-long event designed to educate people about residential schools and their lasting impacts. The trauma of the residential schooling is close to the hearts of many in the NWT, where around half of the population is Indigenous.

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For more than a century, the colonial system forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and attempted to take away their culture, their language, and their Indigeneity. In many cases, children were abused physically, sexually, verbally, and emotionally.

The pain of these experiences has reverberated throughout northern communities in the form of intergenerational trauma, its effects passed down from generation to generation.

How should the NWT – and Canada more broadly – move forward in honouring those who were lost and addressing the issues residential schools created?

Stephen Kakfwi, a former premier of the NWT and residential school survivor, says monuments are a crucial aspect of this. He believes there should be a monument erected on every former residential school site in the territory and across the country.

“We have to remember these children and remember what happened with them,” he said. “It’s never going to happen again. People come to the North and they make this their home, they raise their children, but they don’t know the history.”

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He references a monument in Fort Providence that honours children who died while attending a school there. Kakfwi has three relatives who died in that system and were buried in the community. He didn’t even know who they were as their family name, Laporte, was lost on official records.

“I didn’t know that until I did family research about 20 years ago,” he says. “If it wasn’t for me, nobody would know who the Laportes were.”

This is unacceptable, Kakfwi says. No child should be lost to history or their family. Monuments can help ensure this doesn’t happen.

In September last year, the City of Yellowknife began considering creation of a monument in the city to honour residential school survivors. This week, NNSL reported those plans have advanced to talks between the city and Yellowknives Dene First Nation, though details are yet to be confirmed.

A unique history

How the NWT remembers residential schools may not necessarily reflect how the same issue is handled elsewhere in Canada.

Dr Crystal Fraser, who is Gwichyà Gwich’in from Inuvik and an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, argues the history of residential schools in the North is unique.

Fraser’s PhD thesis focuses on the Indigenous forms of strength Beaufort Delta children used to survive residential schools in the region.  

“There are several things that happened to them that did not happen in the south,” Fraser says.

“Being so far away from Ottawa and … bureaucrats and federal inspectors, there was some autonomy for school administrators in that they could kind-of do their own thing and fly under the radar.”

Crystal Fraser

Dr Crystal Fraser appears in a photo provided by the Hotıì ts’eeda NWT research unit.

This was a double-edged sword.

“A positive thing that happened at one of the Aklavik schools in the 1940s is that parents fought for children to learn how to tan hides at residential schools, and that was able to happen,” Fraser says.

“On the flip side, because there was little oversight from any kind of health inspector, many of the children at that institution weren’t properly fed.

“The conditions in the school, especially in the winter, were severe with no ventilation, cramped quarters … this is also how illnesses and diseases spread.”

The North suffered from what she calls “disjointed policy,” with many schools staying open for longer than others in the south.

Given this history and the long-term impacts on Indigenous communities, proper education on the issue is absolutely necessary, Fraser says..

“Many very wise Elders now in the North are carrying their experiences,” she says, “and the TRC had a national event in Inuvik, which was a very profound time of storytelling.

“You also have Marie Wilson in Yellowknife, former commissioner of the TRC, who is continuing this work in her own way. I think the North is really poised to be a leader in residential school education.”

Space for hope

For Felix Lockhart, a former chief of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation and residential school survivor, that education means sharing his experiences with his children.

“I think it’s part of resiliency and healing for us to be able to provide information,” he says. “And then the next person will use that information to determine for themselves what’s what, what they say, or how they behave.”

Antoine Mountain, from Fort Good Hope, has written a book about his experiences in residential school, having been in the system for 12 years. From Bear Rock Mountain was published in 2019 and has since been used to teach the subject in classrooms across the NWT.

Mountain says federal designations, monuments, and education are a good initial step to ensure residential schools are never forgotten, but the work shouldn’t end there.

“If there are buildings like that available, then there should be art schools, First Nations universities, those kinds of cultural institutions that’ll teach people about traditional knowledge,” he says. “And not just in urban centres, but out on the land.”

Antoine Mountain seen in front of his mural of a moosehide boat

Antoine Mountain seen in front of his mural of a moosehide boat. Photo: Supplied

To truly address the damage done by residential schools, Mountain wants to see Indigenous peoples handed an equal opportunity for cultural revitalization, growth, and well-being.

“If there are going to be institutions involved in this so-called solution or approach to the problems of residential schools, it has to include something that the Indigenous peoples can work with – on the land, survival schools, that kind of thing,” he says.

Fraser agrees.

“I think that we are slowly but surely moving toward having that conversation,” she says. “Parents, teachers, and Elders are calling for on-the-land education. We have a ton of work to do with [Indigenous] languages in the North.”

Fraser has been a prominent part of that conversation in the NWT.

In July, she helped to organize and facilitate a Dene Nation Education Summit that examined the future of Indigenous education in the territory.

With so much passion and engagement across the North, Fraser feels optimistic.

“I think there is a lot of momentum there,” she says. “I think there is a lot of reason to be positive and hold space for hope. But I also think it is going to take an enormous amount of work and energy to make that happen.”

“I think younger people, the sky’s the limit for them,” says Lockhart. “They deserve that.”

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