VANCOUVER — Many university students don’t know the history of Indigenous people in Canada, let alone the implications of the residential school system, but a director at the University of British Columbia says a new history centre will help bridge that knowledge gap.
The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre opening Monday at the university will house archival photos, maps and personal accounts of survivors collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The digital materials will be available for survivors, their families, students and the general public to access.
“Now that the commission is over, all of that history and everything that began as the discussions of the TRC is at risk of simply not being sustained or moving forward,” said Linc Kesler, the director of the First Nations House of Learning at the university.
Kesler said the centre was designed to break the historical pattern of the public being left unaware of the abuses committed at residential schools.
Those who already know the history can also mine the archives to deepen their understanding, while others can get a basic grasp of the events and begin having a discussion on the implications for First Nations communities today, he said.
“We have a lot to do as a society to create the knowledge base and understanding of all of these circumstances that will really give us the capability to have informed and thoughtful discussions and to get to better places,” Kesler said.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg opened in Nov. 2015. The University of B.C. announced it wanted to open a complementary West Coast centre that would give local survivors a space to gather and share their stories and also support collaborative research.
When the centre opens on Monday, UBC president Santa Ono is expected to deliver a statement of apology for the university’s involvement in the system that supported the operation of residential schools.
B.C.’s Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark said the opening of the centre is an example of “reconciliation in action.”
Helping the public understand this history provides context for current issues facing Indigenous people such as the overrepresentation of children in government care from their communities and the urgency to document languages that are dying out, Mark said.
“I want people to be talking about this so that we don’t repeat history,” she said.
The centre also has personal significance for Mark, who had three grandparents forced to attend residential schools.
“Canada has gone through great lengths to kill the Indian in the child and we have to fight back,” she said, adding that she wore her grandmother’s regalia during the government swearing in ceremony as a symbol that First Nations people are still here.
Cindy Tom-Lindley, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society, said having stories of survivors heard and believed also offers validation and contributes to their healing process.
“A big part of the residential school trauma was that no one was allowed to talk about (it) and the horrific things that happened,” she said.
Tom-Lindley attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School over three dispersed years, beginning when she was eight years old. She said she didn’t talk about the experience until she testified during an independent assessment process hearing held when she was in her late 50s.
“Within my community, we can still see those impacts and we deal with them all the time,” she said.
Tom-Lindley never learned the languages of her First Nations’ grandparents because her mother feared she’d be beaten in residential school if she did, she said. She struggles with that loss of culture that her children could never learn either.
Educating the public about residential schools isn’t about blaming, she added, but tackling stereotypes against Indigenous people and creating greater empathy among the rest of Canadians.
Tom-Lindley said although the trauma of the residential school system is felt even by younger generations who weren’t enrolled, she sees improvements.
“My grandchildren are now learning the language in school. That’s a message a hope,” she said.