For many Canadians, the thought of residential schools is something vague and distant, a terrible chapter in the country’s history, but long past.
The Penticton Museum’s latest exhibit, A Long Journey Home: Life After Residential School, presents that experience through the personal stories of First Nation survivors of the residential school system.
Dorothy Ward, a member of the Syilx nation, remembers being taken from her Okanagan home at age 7 and being put on a train to the St. Eugene Residential School in Cranbrook, along with her three siblings.
“I didn’t know why we were going there or what, we were just going on a train trip, that is what my mom said,” Ward recounted. “Later on, I said I want to go home. And they said you can’t go home.”
It was a traumatizing experience. Ward remembers the rules, and the harsh punishments, other children in the dormitory crying at night and being cut off from her family and culture.
“I couldn’t talk to my siblings, because we were in different groups. That was hard,” said Ward. The children were kept to a strict timetable, waking at 6:30 a.m. for prayers, washing up, morning mass, breakfast; kept to a daily rhythm by the clapping hands of their overseers.
“Most children went to two schools: they went to Cranbrook, or they went to Kamloops. The idea was that the schools would be far distances from their communities so that the connection to their communities would be disconnected,” explained Peter Ord, curator of the Penticton Museum.
It was 1879 when it all began, with the Davin report recommending the creation of a industrial school system, where First Nations children were intentionally separated from their parents to reduce the influence of “the wigwam.”
The system was implemented in 1883, and by 1889, the first reports of sexual and physical abuse at a residential school surfaced.
Yet the last federally run residential school — in Punnichy, Sask. — only closed its doors in 1996.
And for First Nations people, the memory and effects of the residential schools are still a part of daily life.
But a Long Journey Home goes beyond stories of the traumatized children.
Through the stories of six Syilx elders, it focuses on the experience of survivors in their adult years, a time of personal struggle to endure and reconcile the memories of their time at school.
“It seems like the experience has made some survivors more determined to learn their language, to pass on their language, to ensure that the younger generation do not become victims again,” said Ord.
Ward, a social worker who also visits schools to speak to children about the residential schools, agrees. They were taught to hate their language and culture, she said.
“We were made to feel ashamed. Having winter dances or doing things like that were of the devil, they were evil.
“Now we are realizing those things are God-given. God gave everybody a culture and that was ours.”
A Long Journey Home is presented in three parts, starting with a history of residential schools in Canada by the Legacy of Hope Foundation’s installation, 100 Years of Loss.
The second section presents videos of six residential school survivors from the Okanagan Syilx community, sharing deeply personal stories of life after returning home.
The recording and presentation of these stories were done by members of the indigenous artists’ group the Ullus Collective.
The third part of the exhibit displays illustrations and paintings from young students who attended the Alberni Residential School on Vancouver Island and the Inkameep Day School in Oliver, provided by the University of Victoria’s Legacy Gallery and the Osoyoos Museum on behalf of the Osoyoos Indian Band.
“It deals with the theme of First Nations culture within the eyes of the child; how it forms an important part of their identity,” said Ord.
“What is significant about that is when they become adults, there is no real visual record of their experience in the residential schools. So the artwork becomes the record, this visual memory in the absence of photographs and it has quite a cathartic effect or influence.”
A Long Journey Home officially opens on July 2 from 4 to 7:30 p.m. with traditional Syilx foods, followed by a presentation by those involved in the preparation of the exhibit. The exhibit runs until Sept. 5.