Nestled into a lush, green landscaped bowl, slung low between two grand libraries on the University of British Columbia campus, is a modest, yet remarkable, new building, holding darkness and light. The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre will open Monday, with a highly anticipated apology by UBC president Santa Ono for the university’s involvement in the system that supported the operation of residential schools.
“I think it’s about time. It gives recognition,” says Alfred Waugh, the Indigenous architect who designed the building. “I think it’s a way of UBC giving respect to what’s happened and then bringing this building in on campus. It’s not about an apology, though. The building is about preserving a piece of history so we don’t repeat this again.”
Mr. Waugh, who is Chipewyan, is a UBC graduate whose mother was a residential school survivor, but never escaped the trauma, ending her own life in 1999, when she was 50. He has worked closely with UBC’s project lead, Linc Kesler, director of UBC’s First Nations House of Learning and senior adviser to the president on Indigenous issues. Dr. Kesler’s mother, who was American, went to an Indian boarding school in Kansas. She never spoke about her experience there until she was in her 90s, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease – and even then, it was just a single, 20-minute conversation.
“It’s personal for both of us,” says Dr. Kesler, who is Oglala Lakota.
The two-storey, 6,500-square-foot centre is not a museum or a monument; it is a place for survivors, their families and communities – and the general public – to access records gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, documenting the history of the residential schools and the abuses that occurred under the government-mandated system. An affiliate site to the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, the centre at UBC is meant to support research, but also dialogue, by offering a place on the West Coast to meet and discuss this difficult history.
Upstairs, two meetings rooms are all windows on one side, cantilevered over the gardens next to the building, to give a feeling of floating over and being in the landscape. Next to the large conference room is what has been named the Elders Room, a comfortable space for families to meet. It offers privacy, but opens up with a wall of windows to bring in light.
A long gradual staircase leads downstairs; there is a wall of woven cedar on your left as you descend – a reference to bulrush mats used in longhouses to keep drafts out – and on the right, a wall of windows looks out onto the land outside.
Downstairs, a former storage area has been turned into a digital resource centre, with a large interactive touch-screen wall, desks with computers, comfortable seating and café tables meant to encourage conversation. Mr. Waugh calls this space “a vault of memories.” The room opens up almost completely to the lawn and water feature outside.
“One of the things survivors, in talking to them, they all said, is when we were in residential school, we all had these confined windows; you felt like prisoners. And because of the emotional content of this building, they said we’d like to have always this constant relief to the landscape. So no matter where you are in the building, you can look out,” Mr. Waugh says.
The building is on Musqueam territory and the Musqueam were consulted and involved in the project, as was the Indian Residential School Survivor Society.
Located at 1985 Learners’ Walk, the structure is rich with symbolism, but at the same time, Mr. Waugh had to avoid referencing specific First Nations.
A wall of charred cedar stands next to the entrance on the east side of the building, a symbol of resilience. Rain is channeled from the copper room into a glass waterfall, sheeting spectacularly, according to Dr. Kesler, in view of the meeting rooms upstairs – a symbol of the tears shed at residential schools.
Mr. Waugh had to fight for the copper roof; UBC wanted a planted roof consistent with sustainable objectives. But the building already sits very low in the landscape (in part to accommodate a public art work, Rodney Graham’s Millennial Time Machine) and elders expressed concern about the planted roof.
“You’re just hiding history again; it’s kind of like the building will disappear,” they said, according to Mr. Waugh. He argued that the roof would reference the importance of copper to the Coast Salish people, and then he used another argument. “I said, ‘Well, you put copper on your Parliament buildings; why don’t you give this building some dignity and put a copper roof on it?’”
Support will be available for visitors to the centre who need it, and anyone who wants to record their history with the residential school system can do so here as well; for some that’s easier than speaking to family directly about it.
“There are a lot of people that really don’t know about what happened to their own relatives because people have been so reluctant to discuss it. And this is a way for them to come into a better understanding about the circumstances of their own life,” says Dr. Kesler, who has studied these issues during decades of work in this field.
“It allowed me to understand patterns in my own experience and life that were very impenetrable before.”