Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre
June 12, 2018
4 mins read

Addressing the legacy of Indian residential schools at UBC

UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre has officially opened. Now everyone can learn about this part of Canada’s history and think about how to move forward in a meaningful way.

A historic day

On the morning of April 9th, more than a thousand people, including several residential school survivors and their families, gathered at UBC to witness the official opening of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, with thousands more watching online.

The opening of the Centre is a truly significant moment in this university’s history, and a day I had been looking forward to since September 2016, when it was publicly announced that the construction of the building would begin.

As Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada said at the time of the announcement:

“I am sure [the Centre] will go far to ensuring that Canada’s national memory about this history is complete and remains intact for future generations. Canada’s academic community has a unique responsibility to reveal past wrongs and challenge historical myths and exclusions while at the same time contributing to the process of addressing the question of what to do about them.”

Now with the Centre open, the University can begin to deliver on this and other promises related to its purpose.

Experiences in my family

There are many reasons why I think the Centre is important for everyone, but its presence is very meaningful to me on a personal level. The harmful legacy of the residential school system is still so fresh and strong for First Nations in Canada, and this is no less true for my own family.

My dad is a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School and my mom, for that matter, is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, and both of these systems have had lasting impacts on our family.

Knowledge gaps in Canada’s education system

Throughout the course of my education, it has been extremely frustrating to learn that oversimplified or uninformed opinions about this part of Canada’s history still exist and that far too often, as an Indigenous student in a classroom, I’ve been relied upon to become the teacher.

There has been, in general, a lot of silence around the subject of residential schools and for a long time now, the silence itself has not been addressed. But we’ve reached a point where misinformation and silence surrounding the schools can no longer be accepted, and oversimplified narratives must be rejected.  

The Dialogue Centre will play a key role in addressing these knowledge gaps that continue to exist, in large part, by providing a safe space to have meaningful discussions, to share stories, and to provide access to records, many of which were collected through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

People on campus will now have the opportunity to learn accurate accounts about this part of our history, including the various abuses that so many Indigenous children suffered in the schools, as well as the lasting impacts that they’ve had on survivors, including the intergenerational effects on families.

In short, the overall damage that these schools have caused First Nations communities is the truth that the Canadian public must come to know, acknowledge and engage with as we strive to move forward in a positive way. We must not forget this piece of Canada’s history or the survivors who experienced it firsthand.

As a young intergenerational survivor myself, I am so pleased that there is now a place at UBC where the stories of survivors will be honoured and upheld. I look forward to witnessing the impact that the Centre will have on campus, which I am confident will be significant.

Many stories, many places

The stories of survivors, however, are captured in various places on campus. At the south end of Main Mall stands tall the Reconciliation Pole, a totem pole that tells a powerful story of the time before, during, and after residential schools. It is covered with thousands of copper nails, each of which represents an individual child who died in a residential school and never returned home.

On the day the Dialogue Centre opened, the Canadian flag at the north end of Main Mall flew at half-mast to honour the survivors, like my late grandparents and great-grandparents. They have since passed away and did not get to live to see their stories as survivors honoured.

Now exists the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, a place where the lives and experiences of residential school survivors will finally be told, honoured, and upheld in a way that can truly represent them and their families. Several people, both on and off campus, have worked hard for a long time to bring these stories and space to UBC.

Now that they are here, we must all play a role in learning from them, acknowledging them, and keeping these stories in mind as we continue to move forward.

A call to action

With that, I want to encourage everyone at UBC, including all students, faculty, and staff to engage with the Centre as much as possible. By learning and discussing our collective histories, we can find a way toward a better future.

Adina Williams speaking at the IRHDC opening

When reflecting on the experiences of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, I balance this out by envisioning a better future for my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, because of the good work that so many people are doing right now.

It is with this future in mind that I personally engage in this work today and call on each and every one of you to engage in this work with us too.

Huy chexw a. Gilakas’la.

Header photograph provided by UBC/Paul Joseph.