A new book aims to preserve history and shed light on the life children faced at an urban residential school in Winnipeg.
Survivors of the Assiniboia Indian Residential School recently came together to write and publish “Did you see us? Reunion, Remembrance and Reclamation at an Urban Indian Residential School,” which details the cultural struggle children faced at the school on a day-to-day basis, as they were forced to assimilate.
“They completely ignored who we were as individuals,” Theodore Fontaine, a survivor of the school, told CTV News. “The perception of who Indian people were. They were stupid. They were not real.”
Assiniboia Indian Residential School operated from 1958 to 1973 in what is now the affluent Winnipeg neighbourhood of River Heights. Ironically, the school is now home to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
It was the first urban residential high school in Manitoba and brought in thousands of children from other schools to serve as an all-Indigenous high school.
According to the federal government, about 150,000 children were sent to any of Canada’s 139 government-sponsored residential schools from the late 1800s until the last one closed in 1996.
Thousands of children died while at these schools, as they dealt with persistent neglect, as well as verbal, physical and sexual abuse. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission characterized these schools as “cultural genocide.”
For many students, arriving at Assiniboia was a step towards freedom.
“We were quite excited to leave our residential schools,” Fontaine said. “It was kind of a, not a mystery, but we looked forward to coming here.”
The survivors note that life at Assiniboia improved compared to the conditions of their prior schools, but many aspects of life were still the same, as they were systematically forced to assimilate to a white world.
Fontaine said he and his friends tried to keep their heritage alive while in the school by speaking Ojibway to each other when no one else was listening.
According to the University of Manitoba Press, publisher of the book, the story “offers a glimpse of Assiniboia that is not available in the archival records. It connects readers with a specific residential school and illustrates that residential schools were often complex spaces where forced assimilation and Indigenous resilience co-existed.” https://uofmpress.ca/books/detail/did-you-see-us
The title of the book — “Did you see us?”– refers to how people often tell the survivors they did not see or did not know about the school while it was in operation.
“We know more — maybe now — than we once did about the residential school system and the harm it caused, but each school was its own unique environment,” said Andrew Woolford, professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba and editor of the book.