Exhibit at Queen's Park tackles Canada's uneasy history with residential schools.
It’s a dark stain on our country’s history: In the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their homes and forced into residential schools, where they endured mental and physical abuse. This forced assimilation has left a legacy of intergenerational trauma and poverty among Indigenous communities across Canada.
But, with a new exhibit shedding light on the history of residential schools, the provincial government is attempting to face those injustices head on.
The Lieutenant Governor of Ontario is currently hosting “100 Years of Loss: The Residential School System in Canada,” at Queen’s Park. The travelling exhibit, which was developed by Aboriginal charitable organization Legacy of Hope Foundation (LHF), examines a century’s worth of the devastating effects of the residential school system on Canada’s Indigenous populations.
“For a long time, this conversation has been being prepared for,” says Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell. “I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission really brought things to a point where people are now ready to have a concrete conversation about reconciliation.”
Within the exhibit, a timeline that spans until 2011 is displayed, detailing major events in the formation and execution of residential schooling.
There are also four pillars to provide further context. The first pillar provides a historical overlook of what happened in Canada in the early 1830s, when the first residential schools were opened. (Many Canadians, Dowdeswell notes, are surprised to discover that the last federally run residential school, located in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.) The second identifies key players in the system, such as Egerton Ryerson, while the third features stories of abuse from survivors of residential schools and haunting photographs taken from government archives. The last pillar focuses on the 2000s and the progress that has been made since.
But much of the recent mainstream conversation about the impact of Canada’s residential school system is due in part to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published an extensive final report in December 2015. (The LFH hopes to add information about the TRC’s report in the fourth pillar at the exhibit.)
According to the report, about 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were in residential schools. Within those schools, there were approximately 3,200 documented deaths. Students were kept in poor conditions, often dying of malnutrition and disease. There have been 37,951 claims made for injuries due to physical and sexual abuse that occurred in residential schools. Indigenous children forced into the schools were not allowed to speak in their native languages or participate in any Indigenous cultural or spiritual practices. The system was deemed “cultural genocide.”
“100 Years of Loss” gives Canadians a chance to reflect on this dark moment in Canada’s history. While Canadians often view their country as multicultural and inclusive, the residential school system says otherwise. The LHF hopes that an exhibit like this will foster a sense of awareness, help in healing survivors and communities affected by the system, and create opportunities for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
And Dowdeswell agrees: “As we’re all thinking about 2017, celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary, it’s going to be a time again where we can be a little bit introspective,” she says. “And as we’re looking back, think about what we want to do differently in the next 50 years.”
The “100 Years of Loss” exhibit is on until Mar. 21. It is open weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with admission every half an hour. It is also available online.