New designation for residential schools will make sure history lives on

CBC Kids News • Published 2020-09-29 05:00

Indigenous survivors react to news

Two residential schools have officially been recognized as sites of historical importance.

Historic sites are places or buildings that reflect an important time in Canadian history.

Portage la Prairie Residential School in Manitoba and Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia are the first residential schools to be acknowledged in this way.

The announcement was made on Sept. 1, but is getting extra attention this week because of Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30, which honours residential school survivors.

“My vision is that it will be a place where people can go, read the plaque, go to the place where the school once stood and to start that conversation of the history of the residential school and look for more information,” Dorene Bernard

What were residential schools?

Residential schools were institutions that were set up by the Canadian government and often run by churches or provincial governments from the late 1800s to the 1990s.

The goal of the schools was to assimilate Indigenous kids into Canadian culture — erasing Indigenous culture along the way.

Some Indigenous youth were forced to leave their families behind and live at the schools.

At least 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were separated from their families and communities and forced to attend residential schools. (Image credit: Library and Archives Canada/Reuters)

Many were abused by staff and prevented from practising their traditions or speaking their languages.

The situation was so bad for some kids, they tried to escape.

How designation will be marked still unknown

The announcement of this special designation came from Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson on Sept. 1.

He's responsible for Parks Canada — the part of the government that oversees historic sites.

Wilkinson didn't say whether the two residential school sites will undergo a transformation, or be marked in some other way, such as with a plaque.

He did say the residential school system itself will be labelled an event of “national historic significance,” in order to “ensure that this part of our history is never forgotten or repeated.”

Survivor say it ensures no one forgets what happened to them

Dorene Bernard, a Mi'kmaq from Sipekne'katik First Nation and a survivor of the Shubenacadie Residential School, wants people to remember what happened to Indigenous people in residential schools.

Right now there is no plaque or sign showing where the Shubenacadie Residential School was. It closed in 1967 and burned down years later. (Image credit: Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

She said she hopes this historical designation will help make sure no one forgets.

Unlike the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia, the Portage la Prairie Residential School in Manitoba is still standing.

Chief Dennis Meeches of the Long Plain First Nation, whose mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents all went to the school, hopes to turn the building into a museum, library and garden honouring survivors.

Chief Dennis Meeches said he doesn’t want to see residential schools torn down. ‘We can't erase that history,’ he said. (Image credit: CBC)

“There will come a day when all of our survivors will have gone on,” Meeches said. “A national historic site — that designation is forever.”

With files from Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

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