Sunday November 19, 2017

Should we demolish or preserve remaining residential school buildings?

Shingwauk Hall, the site of the Shingwauk Residential School, is now the central building of Algoma University.

Shingwauk Hall, the site of the Shingwauk Residential School, is now the central building of Algoma University. (Fungus Guy)

Listen 10:42

What to do with residential school buildings is also a part of the contemporary debate on how to remember difficult aspects of Canadian history.

Considering the atrocities that happened within their walls, should we demolish or preserve the approximately 17 remaining buildings?

Though Carey Newman believes it should be left to each individual Indigenous community to decide, he also thinks objects matter in remembering history. 

Carey Newman

Carey Newman (Courtesy of Carey Newman)

"Probably for me, what makes them matter is sort of tied to my culture and how we see objects as carrying a spirit of some sort…"

Carey is of British, Kwagiulth and Salish descent and the artist behind 'The Witness Blanket,' a work made of hundreds of objects collected from residential schools across Canada.

For Carey, visiting his father's residential school with his dad and his family, was a transformative experience, even though only the foundations remained.

"[W]e could see him sort of reclaiming the space because the last time he was there, he was a boy. And, when we were at the gym, the gym that had seemed so enormous to him and had probably grown even larger through his memory of it...[A]s he walked around it and commented on how small it was, you can kind of actually see weight lifting from his shoulders as he was physically measuring space and then taking back that part of his childhood and his memory." 

"When there's standing records of [residential] schools, it makes them more real." - Carey Newman

Carey also describes how his father shared a lot of different memories while walking through what was left of the building, including memories of the games he would play as a child. 

"I found that really beautiful and really powerful because just the foundations of those buildings were able to give him something back of his life…"

Carey says he doesn't think it would have been as impactful on his father and his family if nothing remained of the building.

Carey also fears that getting rid of the buildings could make it easier to forget, and maybe even minimize,  this already once hidden part of Canadian history. 

Witness Blanket

Carey Newman’s The Witness Blanket, a work made up of hundreds of objects from residential schools across Canada. (Courtesy of Carey Newman)

"...[I]n the absence of the buildings, it becomes theory, it becomes stories, and it becomes something that can be, we talk about changing history or reframing history, it becomes something that's much easier to manipulate in any direction that you chose to have it told in," says Carey. 

"When there's standing records of schools, it makes them more real."

Carey also believes that when making decision about what to do with remaining residential school buildings, we need to consider the legacy of how residential schools still impact communities today, including subsequent generations "because we [also] carry what happened there."