Virtual reality allows users to experience a Canadian residential school

A Winnipeg based project using virtual reality technology takes users back in time to experience Canadian Indian Residential Schools, in hopes of creating a greater understanding of what survivors went through.

The project is set to be used as a teaching tool, means of preserving survivor accounts

Virtual reality brings back emotional memories for residential school survivors

4 years ago
Duration 1:14
A Winnipeg-based project is using virtual reality technology to take users back in time to experience Canadian residential schools.

A Winnipeg based project using virtual reality technology takes users back in time to experience Canadian Indian Residential Schools, in hopes of creating a greater understanding of what survivors went through.

"To place people, immerse them in the space of residential school, as they hear the [survivor's] story in order to provide them a deeper sense of what happened there," said Andrew Woolford, co-director of the project called Embodying Empathy.

Survivors, along with family and friends, gathered at the University of Manitoba Monday evening to try out the technology before it undergoes further testing.

Survivors said some of the scenes were hard to watch because they stirred painful memories. (Supplied by Embodying Empathy)

"We hope it will be useful for enhancing and amplifying what the survivors are already doing [by sharing their stories]," said Woolford.

The three-dimensional experience that took five years to develop takes users through a replica of the Fort Alexander Residential School that operated on the Sagkeeng First Nation, near Powerview Man., from 1906 to 1970.

Carrie Seymour, a survivor, tried out Embodying Empathy, a virtual reality experience that takes users through a residential school simulation. (Travis Golby/CBC )

As the user goes through the different rooms of the school, they hear survivors recount their memories of being there.

Woolford said the technology allows survivors to share stories that may be too personal or traumatic to share in person or in front of a classroom.

The group has secured funding to take it to 10 high schools, and hopes to then bring it into museums and other institutions.

Embodying Empathy uses virtual reality technology to take users inside the Fort Alexander Residential School that operated on the Sagkeeng First Nation near Powerview Man. from 1906 to 1970. (Supplied by Embodying Empathy)

Over the next eight months, 800 students will test the technology to see if it resonates with them, enhances their learning experience and isn't harmful.

The content will be tailored to different age groups, with some of the darker experiences locked and only accessible for certain audiences.

Theodore Fontaine is one of the survivors who took part in the project. He attended the Fort Alexander and Assiniboia Indian Residential Schools from 1948 to 1960.

"There's always the stigma of people, Canadians, that don't really understand what happened or don't believe," said Fontaine.

Residential school survivor, Theodore Fontaine, has spoken to hundreds of classrooms about his experiences. He hopes the new tool will help people understand what the experience was like for Indigenous people. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"I think that was the biggest block in our reconciliation, and when the possibility of having someone understand truly, truly what happened, we started looking at the fact that this was really the road to go," he said.

Fontaine said while using the device was difficult for him and others, it can be an important tool to educate people.

"It provides a better understanding, a more complete understanding of what Canada did to first people,"

'I just wanted to cry'

The project was led by a governing board of seven survivors and involved academics from the university, as well as local computer technicians who helped create the interface.

Carrie Seymour, now 78, also attended Fort Alexander and Assiniboia schools.

She said she took part in the project as a means of helping youth understand an experience that was often kept silent.

Carrie Seymour went to Fort Alexander Residential School when she was 11 years old. She later went on to Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg in the late 1950's. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"Because our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren should really know the history of what happened to the elders in those schools," said Seymour.

"So that they would understand us as survivors because we didn't share what happened to us… we didn't talk about it. I certainly didn't."

Seymour tried out the device and said it took her back to a place she had tucked away for many years.

"I didn't think it would bother me or upset me or anything, but the minute I put on the camera, the emotions just went through my body, I got very emotional," she said.

"I just wanted to cry."

Andrew Woolfordis a co-director of Embodying Empathy, he said the technology will be tested by 800 students to measure if it's an effective teaching tool. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Developers of the project say while it may seem like an odd use for a technology that is usually associated with gaming, virtual reality is being used in museums and other institutions as a means of teaching and preserving stories.

"We know that genocide education is important, and we feel it's particularly important here in Canada, as we move toward an era of decolonization, of reconciliation," said Woolford.