North·FEATURE

Fort Smith residents mull legacy of residential school buildings still in use

People in Fort Smith, N.W.T., are debating whether their community’s schools need to be rebuilt in order to finally get rid of the pain from the residential school era. 

Both schools in town are the only former residential schools still standing in the N.W.T.

Frieda Martselos, MLA for Thebacha, called on the N.W.T. government in the last sitting of the Legislature to demolish both schools in Fort Smith, N.W.T., because they are former residential schools (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

People in Fort Smith, N.W.T., are debating whether their community's schools need to be rebuilt in order to finally get rid of the pain from the residential school era. 

Fort Smith's two schools, Joseph Burr Tyrrell Elementary School and Paul William Kaiser High School, are modern schools set in the same buildings that were once used as residential schools from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, according to Frieda Martselos, MLA for Thebacha. 

In the latest sitting of the N.W.T. legislature, she pushed the government to build new ones in their place, in the wake of the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Residential School.

"Numerous people have told me … it can be hard sometimes to enter or even go in these buildings because it is a … living reminder of the personal and intergenerational trauma of residential schools," Martselos told the legislature. 

Both schools in Fort Smith are the only former residential schools still standing in the N.W.T., the territory's education department confirmed to CBC.

Some day schools and hostels could also still be in use throughout the North, the statement continued, but it is not clear how many there are. 

'I wouldn't want to go in there' 

Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith's Landing First Nation, said the territory should have never repurposed the old residential school sites because of the lasting trauma that he and his members experienced. 

However, he wouldn't support tearing the schools down unless there was a solid plan in place to make sure a replacement is built right away. 

"As a former residential school survivor, I wouldn't want to go in there," he told CBC. "But the answer isn't to tear it down."

Former MLA Michael Miltenberger is a long-time resident of Fort Smith who went to both residential schools. 

Michael Miltenberger is a former MLA and long-time resident of Fort Smith. He says there are more pressing priorities, like finding the bodies of children who died in the schools, than replacing the buildings themselves. (CBC)

He said there are other priorities, like dedicating any extra infrastructure funding to rebuilding flooded homes in the Dehcho or examining their own community graveyards. 

"People have to take it for what it is from [Martselos]: political theatre," Miltenberger said. "A big demand with a huge price tag on the back of the Kamloops situation." 

R.J. Simpson, the N.W.T.'s minister of Education, said tearing down the schools is not something the department is ready to do.

"We can't ignore the fact that the schools were residential schools, but in terms of the age of the facilities … they are in very good condition," he told the legislature. 

The South Slave Divisional Education Council, which represents both schools in Fort Smith, did not respond to a request for comment. 

On-campus housing from residential school era to be replaced  

Another building with a residential school legacy in Fort Smith is Breynat Hall, a student residence at the local Aurora College campus. 

From the 1950s-1975, Breynat Hall was run by the Catholic church as a residential school hostel. Records from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation note that one student died there in 1960. 

A 2018 review of Aurora College found that Breynat Hall should be replaced both "due to its history and condition of the building," according to an emailed statement to CBC. 

R.J. Simpson, the N.W.T.'s minister of education, says it's not the department's priority to replace either school right now. (Mario De Ciccio Radio-Canada/CBC)

Simpson said a new residence building in Fort Smith will be part of Aurora College's transformation into a polytechnic university in the years to come. 

"We need a suitable residence — and that's not a suitable residence for the world-class institution that we are creating," he told the legislature. 

Simpson said discussions about the future of Aurora College, including its student housing, are ongoing with the federal government. 


Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

The NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.

In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason. 

In Yukon, mental health services are available to those in both Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.

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