'Right in their own backyard': New Google Earth project maps Canada's residential schools

The Google Earth Voyager residential school story uses more than 100 markers to geographically show Canada's residential school sites.

The maps are available to all Canadians, but targeted toward elementary and secondary schools

One of the photos included in the Google Earth Voyager residential school story. A group of students sit in a residential school classroom in Cross Lake, Manitoba. (Department of Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives Canada)

A new learning tool is moving beyond the textbook to show Canadians the impact of residential schools.

The Google Earth Voyager residential school story uses more than 100 markers to geographically show Canada's residential school sites and gives first-hand stories from survivors — including accounts of abuse — and how those people and their families are working to move forward.

Voyager is a collection of map-based stories written by Google Earth partners that's updated weekly. The residential schools story project, which launched Monday, is a partnership between the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, based at the University of Manitoba, and Canadian Geographic Education.

"In this project, you can actually see residential schools, you can see where they were, and that helps make it that much more concrete.… This is not the distant past," said Ry Moran, director at NCTR.

The Google Earth Voyager residential school story, launched Dec. 11, uses more than 100 markers to geographically show Canada's residential school sites and gives first-hand stories from survivors. (Google Earth)

"It's really important that Manitobans understand that residential schools were happening right in their own backyard," Moran said, pointing to the former Assiniboia Indian Residential School on Academy Road in Winnipeg as an example.

"The hope is that as Canadians become more informed on what happened in the schools, they will begin to look at all of the other manifestations of aggressive assimilation and cultural genocide that has been playing out in this country," Moran said.

Canada's residential schools, originally designed to assimilate Indigenous people, started operating in the 1830s. The last residential school didn't close until 1996.

The Voyager story and maps are available to all Canadians, but targeted toward elementary and secondary schools.

The project is just one piece in the bigger picture of reconciliation, said John Thompson, a high school geography teacher at Winnipeg's Kildonan-East Collegiate and part of the Canadian Geographic education committee.

"[It's] small steps, much like this map, much like land acknowledgment," he said.

Thompson has been a teacher for 18 years, and said he's noticed increased movement toward — and education about — reconciliation efforts, noting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action made in 2015.

"It's really — I don't want to say taking off — but becoming more of a focus in school divisions."