Ottawa will recognize Canada’s residential school system on Tuesday as a matter of national historic significance while two former residential schools, one in Manitoba and one in Nova Scotia, will be named national historic sites.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and its survivors circle, Parks Canada, and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada co-developed the new designation in response to a call to action from the commission that probed the legacy of the schools. The designation establishes the national historic significance of residential schools as a defining event that continues to have an impact today.
The federal government says national historic designations commemorate all aspects of history, both positive and negative, and it hopes to foster better understanding and discussion of cultures and realities in Canada.
Lorraine Daniels, who attended three different residential schools in Manitoba over the span of seven years, said the designation will be historic for survivors of the schools and a recognition of their pain.
“It is a victory,” she said. “It is a milestone in our journey because everyone is on a journey towards healing. ... It is very encouraging that the government is taking this step to acknowledge the residential schools and the system. As a residential school survivor, that gives me hope.”
Ottawa has acknowledged the system was imposed on Indigenous peoples as part of a deliberate effort to assimilate them and destroy their cultures and identities and that Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities to attend schools where they often faced abuse and neglect.
The two former schools that are becoming national historic sites are the Portage La Prairie Residential School in Manitoba and the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia.
The director of the NCTR, Ry Moran, told The Globe and Mail that the designation of “national historic significance” reflects an important step forward in responding to calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
He also said it represents a critical step in Canada’s own journey of recognizing Indigenous histories and its own history of mass human-rights violations.
The NCTR nominated the residential school system for consideration as a national historic event based on input and recommendations from survivors across the country.
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada has a legal responsibility to advise the Minister of the Environment and Parks Canada through the minister on the commemoration of nationally significant aspects of Canada’s past, including the designation of national historic sites, persons and events.
“There is still a general underrepresentation of Indigenous histories present within that process and when we look to something as damaging and painful and horrific, frankly, as the residential school system, it is essential that history be recognized officially by the state,” Mr. Moran said.
Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, told The Globe that the recognition of the two former schools as national historic sites is a good starting point. Mr. Sinclair said there are also reasons to believe that there are other schools that should be commemorated and he intends to push to have others recognized as well.
Parks Canada says that national historic sites allow for Canadians to learn more about history including the diverse cultural communities that make up Canada. They may include sacred spaces, archaeological sites, battlefields, heritage houses and historic districts. There are more than 970 national historic sites and 171 are administered by Parks Canada, according to the government’s website.
Mr. Sinclair also pointed to an outstanding call to action by his former commission for the federal government to work with survivors and their organizations to install a publicly accessible and highly visible national monument in Ottawa to honour the survivors of residential schools and all the children who were lost.
“The importance of monuments generally for a country is it is part of our national memory,” he said.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who is also responsible for Parks Canada, said Tuesday’s announcement will be about commemoration and a recognition that a series of important events in Canadian history are linked to Canada’s residential school system.
“It is important as Canadians that we understand what happened and that we don’t forget,” he said in an interview.
“This is a system that was put into place that systematically looked to essentially strip Indigenous peoples of their culture and their languages. It is something that, I think, many Canadians do not know continued on until the 1990s. It is an important thing for us as Canadians to reflect on.”
Mr. Wilkinson also said there is an element of acknowledging to Indigenous peoples that the country recognizes that significant harm done, for which it is very sorry.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the recognition of residential schools is a historic event. He also said that naming the two former schools as national historic sites is a critical step to ensure future generations recognize the negative impact residential schools had on First Nations people.
“This is important to ensure that the misery First Nations people faced in residential schools are forever remembered and entrenched in Canada,” he said in a statement.
The federal government says children who were sent to the the former Portage La Prairie Residential School came from many First Nations and other Indigenous communities within Manitoba and elsewhere. The site was nominated for its designation by the Long Plain First Nation.
The former Shubenacadie Residential School site in Nova Scotia was nominated by the co-chair of the Mi’kmaq-Nova Scotia-Canada Tripartite Forum on behalf of survivors of the school and their descendants.
Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqkew children from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec attended the former school. The federal government says it is also possible that children from other Indigenous communities attended this school.
Ottawa says the experiences of former students and survivors of these schools and others have affected Indigenous communities for generations.
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