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Visiting Canada’s shame: Re-education and reconciliation in the legacy of the Residential Schools

“The harms done to one generation become the fate of the next”Chief Edmund Metatawabin

When I was 18, I spent my summer vacation backpacking through Europe. In Germany, I walked the beautiful cobblestone streets of Heidelberg but also walked parts of the cobblestone trail marking the former Berlin Wall, past Bebelplatz and the first phase of the Topography of Terror Museum at the Third Reich headquarters.

I climbed up to the impressive Neuschwanstein, a castle perched high on a Bavarian mountaintop, on the same day as seeing evidence of the country’s lowest point in history at Dachau, the first concentration camp of the Nazi regime. The contrast of these two sites was uncomfortable and perhaps ill-planned, but it was clear to me that this was a country that didn’t gloss over the dark periods of its past. This was a country embracing its history – the pride and the pain.  

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”  – Albert Einstein

Do visitors to Canada see our shame? Did your Canadian history classes include the darker moments as well as the victorious? For many, the stained stories of our country’s past were never discussed in the classroom and we need to re-educate ourselves. But first we need to recognize what prejudices we bring with us.

Do we think that Parliament’s official apology in 2008 and Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report of 2015 were an end rather than the beginning of healing for our Indigenous neighbours? Do we sometimes think because our families came to Canada after these schools were established that we don’t need to engage? Do we, with our prideful inherited Protestant work ethic, view other cultures of productivity as indolent? Do we minimalize land claims because we think the treaties are outdated? If we have had negative experiences, do we judge the actions of a few as the attitudes of all? Do we try to see all sides or does prejudice stop us from digging deeper?  

“Reason wills that we should think again, and not form our conclusions or fix our foot till we can honestly say that we have with our prejudice or prepossession viewed the matter in debate on all sides, seen it in every light, have no bias to incline us either way, but are only determined by Truth itself, shining brightly in our eyes, and not permitting us to resist the force and evidence it carries”
– Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal (1694)

“Re-education” is defined as “education or training to change someone’s beliefs or behaviour” (Oxford English Dictionary) but the word also has a sinister side, describing efforts where certain values or beliefs were forced upon unwilling participants. I live mere kilometres from a place that did just that, one of Canada’s first government funded Indian residential schools.  

The Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario opened in 1831 and was used as a key tool in the assimilation of First Nations children into Euro-Christian culture, severing children from their parents and their culture. When the school was closed in 1970, ownership was given to the Six Nations. 

These school grounds are now a space of cultural renewal. Next to the school building, the Woodland Cultural Centre has become a place to connect with First Nations history, art and languages. A current exhibit titled “Walking Together” came out of an intergenerational community arts project where First Nations students from a local high school worked with First Nations artists and survivors of the Mohawk Institute, a project that aimed to help youth understand what the survivors endured, to remind them of an important part of First Nations History and also Canada’s history.  

“Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

While the Woodland Cultural Centre offers a place for First Nations culture to  flourish, the building itself will stand as a testament to the history of the site. School groups can learn through workshops, tours or interviews with survivors with the hope that this part of our history is never repeated.  

“During a community consultation session, which Woodland hosted to determine if the community even wanted us to preserve the site, a Mohawk Institute survivor said that it was important to save the building, as there was so much more that could be learned by visiting and being in the building than could be learned from a plaque on the place where the building once stood,” explained Jessica Powless, Outreach Coordinator at the Woodland Cultural Centre (woodland-centre.on.ca).

Discussing intergenerational trauma and its effects in his book, Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, Jeffrey Alexander identifies the need to “restore collective psychological health by lifting societal repression and restoring memory . . . through public acts of commemoration, cultural representation, and public political struggle – some collective means for undoing repression and allowing the pent-up emotions of loss and mourning to be expressed.”

The Mohawk Institute is a place that allows this expression for survivors of the school, a space where they can tell their stories and be heard. Survivors have also published their experiences and these books are available to purchase from the Woodland Cultural Centre with proceeds going to help preserve the school’s history. As the building needed significant repair, the Save-The-Evidence campaign was launched in 2013 to fundraise to restore the building.  

“We have raised enough money for the first phase of the campaign, and have now begun renovations on the building,” Powless stated. “This could not have been possible without our donors, supporters and fundraisers. There is still a lot left to fundraise though, as the overall project total sits at $10.5 million.” The next phases of the project will focus on the mechanical upgrades and the creation of interpretive space.  

The abuse that took place in these institutions was done in the name of religion. And even after schools were closed, abuse continued in the name of ignorance. The only way to begin to understand the harm of the residential schools is seek out first-hand experiences told by those who lived it. Churches across Canada have taken steps to be a part of reconciliation and that is a beginning. But as with healing from trauma, this is a process that will take time and authentic engagement.  

“Colonialism is not over. Its tentacles reach into the present, and it is the greatest stain on Canada. Colonialism has put a wall up between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The journey from truth (hearing the stories) to reconciliation (fixing what is broken and building and re-building) will involve taking apart a whole system of colonialism and entrenched relationships – personal, political and philosophical. It isn’t going to be easy, but it’s our only chance. And the very soul of Canada is at stake. In short, let’s talk to each other. And let’s really listen.”
– Shelagh Rogers, Speaking my Truth

In the spirit of decolonization, I did not include survivors’ stories in this article. It should be their words that you read, not mine. Some recommended books include Up Ghost River written by Edmund Metatawabin, survivor of Ste. Anne’s in Fort Albany, Ontario; Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors by Larry Loyie, survivor of St. Bernard’s in Grouard, Alberta; A Dark Legacy: A Primer on Indian Residential Schools in Canada by Bud Whiteye, survivor of the Mohawk Institute; Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential School, a collection of stories available with discussion questions for free download; and The Mush Hole: Life at Two Indian Residential Schools by Elizabeth Graham which compiles over 60 voices of original sources from the Mohawk Institute and Mount Elgin.


  • Krista Dam-VandeKuyt

    Krista Dam-VandeKuyt lives in Jerseyville, Ont. with husband Rob and their children Ethan, Eliya and Zoë. They are members at Ancaster Christian Reformed Church.

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