When I walked into the old Blue Quills Indian Residential School in St Paul, Alberta, it was like being transported back in time. Maybe it felt more so because I was with a former student who had just shared with me some of the details of her horrifying experiences there as a child.
Alsena White led us to the basement of the large, cathedral-like brick building that once housed the area’s First Nations children, operating with the government-mandated goal to “kill the Indian in the child”.
There was a strong, musty smell that overwhelmed my senses and seemed to follow me the whole time we were inside.
The first room she took us to was partially covered in beautiful art painted by students in recent years after the former residential school was transformed into a First Nations university. She stopped at one of the cubbies attached to the wall. It was where she had once kept her belongings.
Around the corner was a small, crumbling room with rubbish strewn across the floor, pipes open and moulding. Tiny green tiles were still visible on the walls. Alsena made her way through the rubble and found a memento from a nightmare she has never forgotten. Number 39, her number – the number she was given in place of her name – was still there, above the space where she once brushed her teeth and washed her face.
As she prepared to pose for a photo in front of it, her gaze drifted out of the dirty window. My colleague, photojournalist Amber Bracken, asked her why she preferred to have her photo taken looking out of the window. Because, Alsena answered, she used to do just that as a child who dreamed of being out there, of escaping, instead of being trapped in here.
It felt so heavy. To be there in a space that held memories of such tragedy, sadness, abuse, genocide. Did it feel more intense because I am Indigenous or because my own grandmother attended a residential school? Does it feel that way for others who have no personal connection to it?
I left the room and wandered around.
I walked across the hallway into a larger room where tables and chairs were stacked. It was once a student dining hall.
Again, I felt as though the smell was smothering me. I needed to get outside, to take a breath. But I didn’t. I stayed and took it all in.
It was quiet and dark, with just the glare of the mid-winter sun lighting the room.
Then, I noticed sheets of paper taped around a couple of the beams that held up the ceiling. They seemed out of place. On them were lists of names – the names of the thousands of Indigenous children across Canada who never made it out of their residential schools, who died in them – of neglect, abuse, disease.
I thought of Alsena and the courage it had taken for her to return to a place she described as a prison, to a place where she was molested, demeaned and torn away from her family, her culture and her identity. I thought of my own children and how gut-wrenching it would be if they were stolen from me and raised by strangers who tried to teach them to hate who they are. I thought of those children’s parents, whose instincts must have been to protect and fight for their children, but who had been rendered powerless by the authorities.
My spirit hurt being there. It was physically hard, too – I wanted to run away. I was sure I could hear the echoes of children’s voices, of all the children who, like Alsena, had prayed and dreamed of being able to escape.
Local Indigenous groups took over the school in 1970, first turning it into an Indigenous learning centre and now a university. Alsena said not much had changed in the way it looked.
I was baffled that hundreds of our people have willingly gone there every day to learn. But maybe it was a way to reclaim what was lost. To get back into the trenches, but turn the tables and arm themselves with traditional knowledge and culture. That day I had to get out, but maybe, sometime, I will go back to ask.
Alsena sometimes gives tours of the school. To her, it is a form of healing. She wants the truth of the residential schools and their legacy to be told and experienced, she said. Another way she heals is by practising speaking in front of an audience when she is alone. She introduces herself, “Hi, my name is Alsena White, and I’m a residential school survivor. This is my story.” To her, it validates what happened, and helps to empower other survivors to not feel burdened by shame.
She told me non-Indigenous people sometimes come for tours, and some of them cry. That is a good sign because this kind of truth-sharing goes hand-in-hand with reconciliation.
In public school, we learn about the concentration camps of World War II and other injustices of war that we are far removed from. But do we understand that we had war for hundreds of years right here in Canada? That our people were held in concentration camps called “reservations”, that our children were taken and held like prisoners? Few people know that part of our own history.
Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we think we have done a lot of work as a country. But my experience as an Indigenous person and my work as a journalist have shown me that we still have a long way to go. Discrimination, racism, systemic inequality still penetrate almost every aspect of society, and the divides between the settlers and Indigenous continue to widen.
I recently spoke to the head priest of the St Paul Roman Catholic Parish about residential schools. Father Gerard Gauthier, who leads a congregation of 600 and holds influence in the town as a religious leader, told me he does not think residential schools were “that bad”.
Some of the survivors, he said, are “exaggerating”. There was also good that came out of them, he added.
“They (First Nations) would still be in the Stone Age, and we’d be living the good life if we didn’t teach them to read,” he said.
I know such ignorance exists, but sometimes, it still floors me to hear it. Still, I would not want Gauthier to be attacked for his views because that will lead us nowhere. He attends a monthly reconciliation group and believes he is doing his part for reconciliation. It is best to leave it at that and hope his eyes are opened to the truth. He is, after all, by far, not the only one to hold such views.
These attitudes are alive and well, and an example of just how long the road ahead of us is.
Canada, a place the world views as almost utopian in its beauty, freedoms and equality, has this dark secret barely below its surface.
I believe in reconciliation, and I see the efforts that are making a difference here and there.
But unless we get right with our past and the havoc it has wreaked, these secrets will tear us apart. So, I am hopeful we will continue along this path to reconciliation so future generations can get along and Canada can truly become all those things it portrays itself as to the rest of the world.