Even as residential school survivors come forward to shed a bold, brave light on the atrocities they have experienced, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye to this era of Canada’s history. The survivors of the Assiniboia Indian Residential School, located in the River Heights neighborhood of Winnipeg, Man., have deftly addressed this tendency toward disregard in the questioning title given to a new collection of their stories, Did You See Us?, published by University of Manitoba Press.
Reading through this collection of stories, it is surprising to learn that the survivors of Assiniboia found it to be a relatively peaceful experience. Students were well-fed, treated with dignity and allowed unexpected freedoms. There was no trace of the violence and abuse that we now know was pervasive across the residential school system.
Assiniboia was, by all accounts, a safe and calm place when compared to other institutions where many students were incarcerated. However, as this collection decisively declares, it was still a residential school — a tool of an assimilatory system, actively participating in cultural genocide.
Reading more deeply through the survivors’ stories, strong undercurrents of loneliness, separation from family, loss of culture and loss of community are palpable. Regardless of the care taken in attending to the physical well-being of the students at Assiniboia, their emotional, psychological and spiritual needs were not fulfilled. The severing of all ties to their families, communities and cultural identity, and the indoctrination into Catholicism had devastating effects.
For some, the enormity of these traumas resulted in untimely deaths, mourned to this day by their surviving classmates. In others, it strengthened their resolve to return to their communities and work to preserve their culture, language and traditional ways. Others still, such as former national chief of the assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine and Senator Mary Jane McCallum, worked to make a difference for Indigenous people in Canada on a national level.
Did You See Us? is a thoughtfully constructed, well-informed, true historical narrative. This collection tells the stories of the survivors who lived at Assiniboia during the residential and hostel years, shares the perspectives of the school’s staff and the residents of neighbouring River Heights and presents relevant articles and artifacts alongside records from the school itself.
In doing this, the survivors, along with the collection’s editor, sociology and criminology professor Andrew Woolford, paint a comprehensive picture of Assiniboia. This collection expertly holds the positive experiences the survivors had at Assiniboia in necessary tension with the inherently insidious intentions and effects of the residential school system.
Assiniboia Indian Residential School was in operation from 1958 through 1973. All but one of its buildings were torn down to make way for a Royal Canadian Mounted Police building in the 1980s. There is a certain irony to the present use of the only remaining Assiniboia campus building as the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. However, as stated in Did You See Us?, “we must do more to protect children,” and perhaps this is a part of that “more.”
The subtitle of this collection, Reunion, Remembrance, and Reclamation at an Urban Indian Residential School, speaks to the work the survivors do through their non-profit foundation, the Assiniboia Residential School Legacy Group. This group has held many reunions for the survivors of Assiniboia, inviting former staff and members of the community to join them for times of sharing, community building and remembrance. In this, and in many other ways, they seek reconciliation and press on toward a better future.