Day 6

Should remaining residential schools be demolished or preserved?

Though the decision to preserve or demolish residential schools is a controversial one, residential school survivor Ruth Roulette is leading the push to turn a residential school in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba into a museum.
A drawing of the former Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School. It closed in 1970 but the building still stands. (CBC)

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released this week, makes 94 recommendations and calls on Canada to move from 'apology to action' in addressing the legacy of residential schools.

The commission says it's difficult to put an exact number on how many residential schools operated in Canada since the late 1800s. But, we know the last school closed in 1996 and most have been demolished. It's what many survivors want. 

However Ruth Roulette, a residential school survivor herself, is leading the push to convert a former residential school in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba into a public museum.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: Ruth, you actually work in the building that you're trying to save. You have an office there and this is a former residential school. What's that like for you?

Ruth Roulette: At the very beginning it was difficult. However it's been a few years now. I've adjusted to the building and also to the climate that's in there, so I'm okay. 

BB: Does the building feel like a place that has a dark past? 

RR: Yes. Certain areas of the building, it does. But where we are, we made it into a calming room. So we don't feel the negative energy in there. 

BB: But tell me about the places where there is a negative energy. 

RR: There's one corner of the building that's very dark and it's a little room off to the side. And many survivors have told us that this is the room where they were kept for being defiant. 

BB: So it was a detention cell or a detention room. And there are painful memories associated with it for some people. 

RR: Absolutely, absolutely.

BB: So the residential school that you attended in Manitoba was demolished. What was it like for you when that building came down? 

RR: There was relief, and sadness as well. Horrible, horrible memories in there. 

BB: But in hindsight, do you think now that maybe it was a mistake to take it down?

RR: You know, the people that took it down, I respect their decision - that was their healing. And I'm respectful of that because different people heal in different ways. 

BB: But you have a strong sense about saving and preserving the building in Portage la Prairie. What is your vision for this building, this former residential school? How do you think it can be turned into something positive?

RR: Well, we've got big, big ,big dreams - and I know they're going to come true - and big plans. We want to preserve the school so that generations to come can understand what happened to us as survivors in these schools. 

BB: Almost like the institutional memory is kept alive beyond well after you're gone and all the other survivors are gone. 

RR: Yes, that's right. One of the things that we are going to do, and we're going to do it, is also have a place - after they walk through the museum - where they can talk to somebody, and also healing gardens. My brother had a really interesting conversation the other day, and he was making reference to the Jewish communities, how they have Auschwitz, and in the States they have the Veterans Memorial. And we have to have something too. And this is what we're going to do. 

BB: Earlier this year residential school survivors in Alert Bay, B.C. celebrated when their village's former school was demolished. And Chief Robert Joseph went to that school. Here's some of what he said during the demolition: "We've gathered here to mark the passing of a very dark era. And to celebrate the idea that we can now move forward and to find more ways to heal and empower ourselves, to manage our lives differently, to have a new way of looking at the future."  That's Chief Robert Joseph talking about looking at the future in a new way because the school no longer exists. But you want people to look at the past and you think that's important. Can you explain to me, and other survivors, why that's important?

RR: I'm respectful of what happened to the B.C. survivors. And if that was their way to move on, that's great. You know, I applaud them. Like it happened to us, too, in my school where I went. And I know at that very moment, I was happy. And I thought, in retrospect, oh my goodness, I could have gotten a lot of information from that school. But, you know, I didn't need to because what happened was a lot of the survivors from that particular school came to us when they knew that we were going to start a museum honouring residential school survivors. And they started bringing little trinkets to me: pictures. artifacts, stuff that they've held onto for whatever reason. And they started bringing things to me and I have a lot of their stuff. 

BB: Tell me about the objects. Tell me specifically what what are the things that you have been holding, and cataloguing and archiving for all those people.

RR: I've got files, their own student files. I've got pictures. I've got little objects. I think I've got a massive collection of stones that they've held on to. I've got a belt that was used to strap for disciplinary measures. 

BB: The belt was used to hit children. 

RR: Yes. 

BB: When you hold that belt, when you pick it up, what memory does it bring back for you?

RR: I think of all the students, how they must have felt. How I felt when I was being whipped by that belt 

BB: Ruth, are there their children's drawings in the collection?

RR: Yes. 

BB: Can you describe one for me?

RR: There was one. It's actually a painting, one of the survivors brought it over to us and it's a priest holding a belt on a young child, and the child has his arms up. I've got that in my office. 

BB: Are there letters in the collection? 

RR: There are some letters that I have. I didn't read the letters, yet. But I do have them in a box. The time will come for me to read them. Now is not the time, I'm going to wait. There's still hurt there for me. But I will look at them. And I will preserve them and I'll honour them. Periodically I will go through all the boxes and will smudge them and pray over them.

BB: What has it meant for you, Ruth, to be the person that holds these objects, to gather them to preserve them to archive them and care for them? What has it meant for you personally?

RR: I feel very honoured

BB: Ruth is it a burden?

RR: No, no. It's never been a burden for me, no 

BB: But it's an enormous responsibility that you have.

RR: Very much so. And I know that. I just feel honoured that's all. 

BB: If a museum is created, Ruth, then these objects will have a home and you will be able to put them down. You'll be able to put them into the museum. 

RR: Absolutely. That's my plan

BB: What will it mean for you personally to let them go? 

RR: I don't think I'll ever let them go. They'll always be in my memory. Because I physically and visually see them. And I can't wait for the day that our museum opens and showcases to the world what we have.