From Wawmeesh's notebook 

Hi, <<First Name>>. What does it say about a community if its residents don’t know the name of the residential school that once stood there for 80 years?

I thought about that earlier this week after reading an opinion piece on CBC News, which called for the preservation of testimony from residential school survivors, in light of a court ruling that said these sensitive records should be destroyed after 15 years. Preserving them would ensure documented proof of one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history, author Tim Fontaine argued. He said survivors can choose to have their testimonies preserved, but if they don’t, then society will be robbed of knowing what it should know.

Tim’s op-ed also brought to mind a recent reporting trip to Port Alberni, B.C., which was part of my investigation into reconciliation in small Canadian towns. There, I found a similar situation that provides grist for the argument that survivor testimony should be preserved: Out of six non-Indigenous locals I Interviewed, only one knew the name of the residential school that existed in Alberni from 1893 to 1973 (Alberni Indian Residential School). Several of the five were aware that a school once existed in town, and that abuses against Indigenous children had taken place there, but nobody knew its name. Compare that to the seven out of eight Indigenous people I interviewed who correctly identified the residential school. 

I wonder, does this go beyond people not knowing a name? Does it suggest that the role small towns played in Canada’s residential schools are being downplayed? Or not? Most schools were located in rural areas, and served as weigh stations for generations of Indigenous children taken from their homelands in the name of assimilation and progress.

Since most of the white people I interviewed in Alberni couldn't name the residential school that was in their hometown for 80 years, then shouldn't there be better public education about residential schools in Canada? What's your take? I think doing so would honour survivors and educate citizens about a difficult — but important — part of Canada’s past. It also makes denying and dismissing survivors’ experiences indefensible.

Do you live in a town that used to have a residential school? Can you recall its name without relying on Google? Tell me via Facebook, Twitter or email. And if you enjoyed reading this, please ask your friends to subscribe.

Thanks for joining me on this journey of reconciliation, 

Speakers' Corner

Hupacasath First Nation member Cole Sayers, 27, grew up in Port Alberni. In this audio clip, Cole talks about having gone to A.W. Neill Elementary School, which was named after former Indian agent Alan Webster Neill, and the shame he felt as a teen about being Indigenous. Cole also believes some white Canadians cling to colonial figures because these figures are the only history they have as settlers. (Credit: Wawmeesh Hamilton)


  • Journalist Tim Fontaine penned an opinion piece about preserving residential-school testimonies, which motivated me to write this newsletter.
  • University of Saskatchewan historian Jim Miller wrote Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts its History, a thorough and thoughtful study of reconciliation in this country. Jim’s book hits shelves on Tuesday, but you can read an excerpt, here.
  • Are you a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union? Did you know there’s a toolkit that can help you implement reconciliation at work? You do now. Read it during your lunch break.
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