When University of British Columbia president Santa J. Ono delivered his apology to residential school survivors for the institution’s connections to the residential school system, it was made clear by the survivors and family members who spoke after him that a chapter in Canada’s dark history with Indigenous peoples is closing.
But the path to reconciliation with non-Indigenous Canadians remains a long one.
Ono delivered the apology on behalf of the university during the opening ceremonies for the campus-based Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre on Monday, April 9. The centre houses the Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimonies from West Coast survivors for public access, while also serving as a home base for Indigenous-related research. Records from survivors from across the country who testified at the commission are found at the University of Manitoba-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
“Universities bear part of the responsibility for this history, not only for having trained many of the policy makers and administrators who operated the residential school system, and doing so little to address the exclusion from higher education that the schools so effectively created, but also for tacitly accepting the silence surrounding it,” Ono said.
“The continuing failure to address this history has meant that the previous ways of thinking — or of not thinking — about the residential school system have remained largely intact,” Ono said. “Failing to confront a heinous history, even if it is one that we did not cause, is to become complicit in its perpetuation. This is not a result that we, as a university, can accept.”
The centre, now open to the public, serves to address these wrongs through its four functions: a place to house Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other related records for the access of survivors and their families; as a home for research into the schools and related issues; to allow the public to learn about the schools and their legacies via these records; and as a meeting place for collaborative discussions, research and understanding on issues relevant to Indigenous communities today.
While the centre sets out to dispel the myths and end the broader ignorance about residential schools, speakers at the opening ceremony discussed how deep this ignorance runs. Even today fourth year university students like Adina Williams, a member of the Squamish nation, learned minimal facts in school about the residential school system and how Indigenous children were forced to attend.
“We did not learn about the harmful abuses that so many students suffered in the schools, or about the effects that they had on survivors and their families,” said Williams, whose father attended residential school and whose mother was taken into government care as part of the ‘60s Scoop.
Williams recalled one teacher in elementary school comparing the residential school experience to their own childhood experience of being smacked on the hand with a ruler.
“They described the experiences of our parents and our grandparents as untrue and over-exaggerated,” she said. But while she was proud of the Indigenous students who spoke out, as an Indigenous person Williams is tired of being the expert in the room or the only one to disagree when others insist Indigenous people need to “get over” residential schools.
“These are comments that so many of us here today are used to hearing. And I believe that they’re based off of racist and stereotypical assumptions that have been developed as a result of the lack of education that Canadians received on these parts of Canada’s colonial history.”
Other speakers echoed the racism they have received from non-Indigenous Canadians. Cindy Tom-Lindley, a member of the Syilx people of the Okanagan Nation and executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, added the compassion people feel for survivors of other atrocities isn’t often extended to residential school survivors.
“It would be like asking people who were in the Holocaust, why don’t you just get over it?” said Tom-Lindley, a former student at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, who held a feather in her hand while she spoke in honour of both school survivors and “the ones who didn’t make it home.”
Every one of the Indigenous people in the gathered crowd of hundreds in front of the centre had their own story of being dismissed as “lazy” or “drunk,” she said.
Nevertheless, there was great enthusiasm for the possibilities of the centre. Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit called on the centre to conduct research on the application of the doctrine of discovery in B.C., which was and continues to be used to justify the taking of Indigenous lands.
“Residential schools were just one instrument in implementing the doctrine, in implementing colonialism. It was one of many instruments, and I think it’s important to understand that we can’t just focus on residential schools and think this is the whole picture,” he said. “It isn’t.”
Barney Williams Jr., a survivor of the Christie Indian Residential school and Nuu-chah-nulth nations member, noted the benefits the centre has to offer aren’t just for Indigenous people.
“It offers you, the general public, the opportunity to be educated in our ways, how we live. And if you already know, it’s an opportunity to learn more,” he said. “And to support those of us that still don’t have the strength to walk through these doors.”
But it’s not just an opportunity, Williams Jr. added, but a responsibility of all people living on this land to educate themselves about the schools, the impacts of colonization overall, and our collective history: “All of us have the responsibility in ensuring that this never happens again.”