Former Quebec residential school site now a place for Indigenous kids to learn about language, culture

Considering the building used to house a residential school aimed at separating children from their language and culture, parents and staff feel the new mission of the daycare as one of acceptance and inclusivity is important.

Daycare's special programming focuses on celebrating Atikamekw language and culture

Indigenous children at First Steps daycare in La Tuque, Que., have access to special programming where they learn about the language, culture and traditions of their community. (Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada)

The building in La Tuque, Que., once housed a residential school, but now the space is being used as a daycare where Indigenous kids are encouraged to speak their native language and learn about their culture.

About 60 per cent of kids at the First Steps daycare are Indigenous, and they take part in special programming where they get to participate in activities that connect them with their Atikamekw heritage.

The daycare also offers programs where Indigenous and non-Indigenous children spend time exploring the forest and learning about the values and knowledge of Indigenous communities.

The staff at the daycare say that introducing Indigenous and non-Indigenous children to these values and fostering relationships between them is paying off.

"It removes prejudices. It creates nice connections," said Christiane Morin, who has been the daycare's director since it opened in 2001.

Staff say bringing together children from different cultures helps break down barriers for both kids and parents. (Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada)

Morin says it has the same effect on parents whose kids take part in the program.

She says at the beginning, many non-Indigenous parents had preconceived notions about the Indigenous children.

"When there was an outbreak of lice, they thought it was because of the Indigenous children," said Morin.

Morin says she didn't tolerate this kind of attitude, and that giving the kids time to get to know each other helped break down barriers.

The daycare features a forest program where the kids get to explore nature and learn about its value in Indigenous culture. (Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada)

While she recognizes the sombre history of the building, Morin feels that a new chapter is being written within its old walls.

"We no longer see sadness. We see children who are happy. We can see that they are having fun. It buries the tears that were here before."

'A way to remember that it happened'

For Indigenous parents, giving their kids a place where their language and culture will be validated and celebrated brings peace of mind.

Laurianne Petiquay, who comes from the community of Wemotaci on the north shore of the Saint-Maurice River, says she felt that putting her kids in a program where they could speak Atikamekw would give them a better chance to succeed.

Petiquay felt the program at First Steps would also help her kids feel more included.

Laurianne Petiquay sends her three kids to the daycare. She said she's happy to have them in a place where she knows they won't face discrimination. (Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada)

"It's hard to choose to stay in an urban setting when you're an Indigenous mom who speaks the language and whose kids speak the language. I worried they were going to suffer discrimination [elsewhere]," she said.

Considering the building used to house an institution aimed at separating children from their language and culture, Petiquay said she feels the new mission of acceptance and inclusion is important.

She said repurposing the building is a "way to remember that it happened. The fact that this place has come back to life in another way, by bringing back children with a beautiful program for the First Nations ... is a way of remembering and not just demolishing it to forget."

Only the building that housed the classrooms remains of the former school. The chapel and dormitories were demolished because they were dilapidated. 

At the daycare, Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids are regularly outdoors and explore the forest with magnifying glasses, shovels and a vegetable peeler.

Taniassa Laloche, an educator at the daycare, speaks to the kids in Atikamekw and helps them develop their vocabulary. (Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada)

When they return to the classroom, the Atikamekw kids spend time with Taniassa Laloche, who runs the program for Indigenous kids. Laloche speaks to them in both French and Atikamekw, and runs special programming where they listen to stories and myths told by elders or learn about cultural practices, like tanning moose hide.

Conserving the language

Laloche brought her father, Jean-Yves Birothé, into the class to teach the kids how to make bannock.

While they waited for the bread to bake, Laloche taught the kids how to say numbers and shapes in Atikamekw to broaden their vocabulary.

"It's important for the conservation of our language," she said.

Romeo Saganash, a Cree lawyer who served as the member of Parliament for the Quebec riding of Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou from 2011 to 2019, attended the residential school in La Tuque for 10 years when he was a child.

Romeo Saganash, a Cree former MP, spent time at the residential school in La Tuque that now houses the daycare. (Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada)

He remembers the smell of the old building and the way the staff would address the children in English, even though Saganash at that time spoke neither French nor English.

He remembers being at school and being told his father had died and that he wouldn't be allowed to attend the funeral.

"I stayed in my seat without crying, totally enraged. I told myself I would try even harder to get out of that place," said Saganash.

He says he supports the impact the daycare is making today, but says that educating young people about the history of these buildings and the legacy of residential schools is crucial to moving forward.

Based on a report by Radio-Canada's Delphine Jung