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Of the dozens of residential schools built across Canada, 15 to 20 are still standing. From B.C. to Ontario, many of the Indigenous people trying to overcome the schools’ toxic history say it’s wrong to tear them down

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'Help me' and other messages from Indigenous residential-school pupils can still be seen on the exterior walls of the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., shown in 2017.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Sept. 30 is Orange Shirt Day in Canada, a day to acknowledge residential-school survivors and their families. This year, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is releasing a list of 2,800 children who are confirmed to have died in the schools.

Canada was once home to more than 130 residential schools, places where the Indigenous children of this country were sent to be assimilated into Euro-Canadian culture, but which resulted in a cruel legacy of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and cultural disempowerment whose impacts are still felt to this day.

Between 15 and 20 of these schools still exist, according to estimates by historian Tricia Logan – and a debate has ensued about what to do with those that remain.

Some survivors wish to see the buildings demolished while others feel they should be preserved. For those communities that have chosen preservation, wiping these schools from existence threatens to obliterate the fact of the federal government’s wrongdoings, as well as an important facet of Indigenous-settler relations. Institutions like the Dialogue Centre and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, both born out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), are working to get information to survivors about their past, and help preserve that history.

“I know it’s an uncomfortable subject for many, but at the same time we can’t lose and erase it from our history,” said Chief Dennis Meeches, from the Long Plain First Nation, who is involved in the renovation of a former residential school in Manitoba.

Names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools released during sombre ceremony

The list of Indigenous children who died in Canada’s residential school system

Residential schools operated in Canada from 1830 until the late 1990s. Many of the buildings have since disintegrated, fallen into disrepair, or been demolished. There has been a movement to preserve residential schools for decades, but with so few left standing and with buildings continuing to age, the calls to preserve them have become more urgent.

In 2015, the TRC requested the government carry out "a national heritage plan and strategy” to memorialize the sites, but, federally, Canada lacks a cohesive network to gather this type of data and implement a plan to protect the schools. Now, many communities are trying to save the remaining buildings because their existence is concrete proof of a dark past that, they say, should not be forgotten.

These communities have rallied to save their schools using a variety of tactics, and with the intent to help heal deep cultural and personal wounds.

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In 2017, the Mohawk Institute site was being excavated to help preserve all evidence of the abusive system that separated Indigenous children from their families.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Mohawk Institute residential school

Brantford, Ont.

Operating between the years 1830 and 1970, the Mohawk Institute was the first residential school in Canada, and according to Carley Gallant-Jenkins, co-ordinator of the Save The Evidence (STE) campaign, which aims to restore the school, it had the longest lifetime in the country. As part of its restoration efforts, STE is taking feedback from different generations of survivors. It’s been nicknamed the “Frankenstein building,” because the end product will represent diverse elements from so many different points in history.

“The lifespan of Mohawk Institute [is] so vast that it would be hard to choose just one timeline and just one story. So it will be about combining all of those into one building,” said Ms. Gallant-Jenkins. “So a survivor walking into one room might not necessarily recognize every single part of that building, but they’ll recognize something.”

Gallant-Jenkins’s grandfather attended the school, and she was relieved when 98 per cent of the community voted to keep the building standing. The building is now part of the Woodland Cultural Centre, an education and art hub with a small museum as well. “It’s a really important part of Canadian history and with it being the first, you only get one of those. So we want to make sure we’re doing this right and make sure we’re doing it appropriately and as sensitively as possible,” she said.

Earlier this month, the Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS) in partnership with the cultural centre, completed a month-long project of building replica furniture for the former Mohawk residential school, as part of a bigger process to restore the building, and use it as an education centre.

“We respond to disasters, typically natural disasters, but also, in some cases, man-made disasters,” said Nick Hamm, the Ontario board chair of MDS, who helped with the restoration.

The STE started as an offshoot of the Woodland Cultural Centre when the institute needed roof repairs for a severe leak. During the repairs, it was discovered that the roof was so poorly built that it would never have been to code at any point while the building was standing.

The substandard construction of buildings is common among residential schools, something Logan says points to the general neglect that existed in the whole school system.

Though they have received funding and donations, the project still needs roughly $12-million to realize its vision, including money to be set aside for an endowment fund. The school plans to reopen on the 50th anniversary of the closure, in 2020.

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The former site of the Muskowekwan Indian residential school, which was run by the Oblate Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church.Troy Fleece/The Globe and Mail

Muskowekwan Indian residential school

Lestock, Sask.

The Muskowekawn residential school is the last standing residential school in Saskatchewan, and was also the longest-operating in the province, closing in 1997. Two years later, 335 elders attended a meeting in which 331 voted to keep the school instead of accepting money offered by the government to tear it down. The province now recognizes the school as a heritage site, but it is still waiting on designation from the federal government.

For the past four years, the community has been hoping to turn the abandoned school into an education centre. “We have tons of people who come, drive by and take pictures,” said Cynthia Desjarlais, band councillor for the Muskowekwan First Nation and former attendee of the school. “They’ve read stories about it but they want to see the actual building. It’s history and it can be used as a teaching tool.”

A separate facility will house a healing centre, which will focus on helping families deal with the trauma, passed down through the generations, of residential schools.

Part of the building stands on top of burial sites. Desjarlais said the Universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta are taking on a project to identify unmarked graves through sonar exploration. To date they have discovered 20.

“We have to remember that it was common practice for many years to build cemeteries alongside the residential schools. When the residential schools were either shut down or abandoned, so too were those cemeteries,” said Ry Moran, the director at the Nation Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Only about 100 or so have been thoroughly identified, but the TRC estimates there are as many as 400 unmarked cemeteries across the country.

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Peter YellowQuill is shown in 2010 outside the residential school in Portage La Prairie that he once attended. He is a former chief of the Long Plain First Nation, which now hopes to turn the site into a national museum of the residential-school period.John Woods/The Globe and Mail

Portage La Prairie residential school

Portage La Prairie, Man.

The Long Plain First Nation hopes to turn this former school into the Indian Residential School Museum of Canada. “The goal is to have the residential school declared a national historic site,” said Chief Dennis Meeches. “We do have provincial designated heritage on the building. We’re actively working with Parks Canada towards having the site declared a national historic site.”

The elders of the community recommended saving the building and using it as an educational tool.

“Although it’s a very dark chapter in our history … we do need to bring education and awareness, not only to Canada, but globally on what happened at the residential schools,” said Chief Meeches.

The Long Plain First Nation received ownership of the Portage La Prairie Indian residential school, now known as the Rufus Prince Building, in 1981, as part of the acknowledgment of treaty land claim.

Currently, the building is home to a small museum and the First Nation leases property to other organizations such as the First Nation police headquarters, whose rent will help pay for renovations, until the organizations move into their own commercial property.

The former school has undergone upkeep over the past decade, but like other schools, it needs roof repairs – something the community hopes to see completed this fall. They are also actively collecting more archival material to use for the museum, on top of what they already have in their library.

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The St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino in Cranbrook, B.C., is in the former building of a residential school.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Kootenay Indian Residential School

Cranbrook, B.C.

Cranbrook, B.C., is home to an 18-hole golf course, a casino and hotel spread over 130 sprawling hectares of land owned by five bands of the Ktunaxa nation living in the province.

The St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino is built on the site of the former Kootenay Indian Residential School, which operated for 60 years before it was shut down in 1970.

Today, the school building houses a 125-room hotel in the resort. Visitors can sign up for tours where they learn the history of the Ktunaxa through photos and artifacts, and participate in traditional activities. They can also take a dip in the pool, play golf where all the holes are named in the Ktunaxa language or go to the casino.

The entire resort took 10 years to build, beginning with consultations with the community and the Ktunaxa bands, who voted to restore the building. The golf course opened in 2000, followed by the casino two years later and the hotel in 2003.

“We always knew we wanted it to be something that would make profit,” said Margaret Teneese, an archivist at the Ktunaxa Nation Council. Ms. Teneese is a survivor of the school, and she says the building’s exterior looks much the same way it did when she went there.

Now, Ms. Teneese runs tours of the building. “To me, that is healing,” she said, noting that sometimes visitors come from other Indigenous groups who have demolished their residential schools. She’s glad hers still stands.

“We have a place to tell our story.”

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An archival photo shows pupils at the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Northern Ontario. The site is now owned by Algoma University.mccrackenk/courtesy of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma Unviersity

Shingwauk Indian Residential School

Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

In the 1830s, Anishnaabe Chief Shingwauk travelled to York (today’s Toronto) to ask Sir John Colborne, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, for a school where Indigenous communities could exchange traditional land knowledge with European settlers, and gain Western education at the same time.

Instead of what he envisioned, a residential school was built in its place. The existing brick building of Shingwauk Indian Residential School opened in 1935.

But Chief Shingwauk’s mission wasn’t in vain. One year after the residential school closed in 1970, Algoma University took over the building. The postsecondary institution made Chief Shingwauk’s vision its own.

Today, in addition to their coursework, Algoma students can learn how to make maple syrup in the summer, and how to dress an animal from the hunt in the fall. Other schools also tour the site, which includes a cemetery with unmarked graves, a church which was built by the residential school students and an exhibit on the history of the school. Researchers can access archives from the residential school, which are housed in the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre in the Shingwauk Hall building.

The exterior of the residential school building remains intact. Although there were renovations on the inside, survivors asked for two pieces to be preserved. The first were the front doors, “because when we walked through those front doors, our lives were changed forever,” said Elizabeth Edgar-Webkamigad, director of the SRSC, paraphrasing what survivors had told her. “We want [visitors’] lives to be changed for the better.”

The second element was a small door at the foot of the stairs on the second floor, which led to a cubby space where students would have to sit when punished.

“[Survivors] decided the little cubby space needed to remain in honour of those who lost their life while at residential school, in honour of those who never made it home,” she said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the University of Saskatoon. This version has been corrected to say the University of Saskatchewan.

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