Aboriginal Awareness Week at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay culminates today and tomorrow with a focus on how residential schools affected not just those students who survived them, but also the generations that followed.
Residential schools, church- and government-operated, were created in the 1870s as part of an aggressive assimilation policy by the Canadian government. At their peak in 1931, 80 schools operated around the country, and eventually 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend. Up to 80,000 of those students are still living. The last school closed in 1996.
Today the Lakehead University Aboriginal Awareness Centre and the SEVEN Youth Media Network unveil “Healing the Legacy: a Residential School Project by Youth,” a multimedia exhibit in the Agora University Centre through tomorrow.
The exhibit, which uses stories, photos and artwork submitted by young people depicting their experiences and perceptions of residential schools, was organized by SEVEN, a Thunder Bay–based group founded to give young people aged 13 to 30 who hail from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) an outlet to communicate and connect through its magazine, radio programs and website.
“The main goal for this project was to build an understanding between non-aboriginal and aboriginal people,” said SEVEN director Grace Winter.
Such a focus is especially timely and relevant given the release on February 24 of the interim report compiled by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which emphasized education as a main tool for healing and moving forward.
Non-aboriginal people, when hearing about residential school’s devastating effects on the aboriginal community, have an attitude of, “It happened to you, get over it, it happened a long time ago,” Winter said. However, she added, “Youth are still suffering the impact. This is a way of showing [that] this is what we’re dealing with. A lot of our families don’t know how to raise families. It’s not to rub it in anybody’s face or get them to feel bad. It’s more of an open platform and discussion.”
The exhibit deals with disturbing issues, relating stories of sexual abuse, addiction and domestic violence that the young people link to the resident school experiences of the generations before them. The gathering of the stories, videos and artwork were created over the course of a year, and many can be found on the SEVEN website under “TRC Project.”
“It’s honest and it’s truthful,” Winter said of the exhibit. “I’m just really grateful that our youth had the courage to submit their stories.”
After the 1 p.m. unveiling of the exhibit on March 8, there was a lecture on “Indigeneity in Education: the Evolution of Residential Schools” given by Dennis McPherson, chair of indigenous learning at the university. At 1 p.m. on March 9, NAN Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatwabin will speak on “Surviving and Then Working with Survivors of Residential Schools,” also in the Agora.
Lakehead University has celebrated an Aboriginal Awareness Week every March since the founding of its Aboriginal Awareness Centre in 2000. There is also a nationally designated Aboriginal Awareness Week, launched in 1992, on the four days following the Victoria Day long weekend, which this year falls from May 22–25.