Canada’s museums face the history of residential schools

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Last month, the Canadian Museum of History announced it would cancel its Canada Day celebrations after anonymous graves were found at the sites of former residential schools across the country – one of many adjustments it has made. he subsequently brings traumatic discoveries.

In an email to CBC News, the Gatineau, Que., Museum said other changes it had planned include signage detailing the history and continued impact of residential schools, a warning about exhibit content that covered the topic and a full review of its content. .

CBC News has contacted more than a dozen museums across the country about how they are dealing with the legacy of residential schools in Canada.

Responses from museums varied: some highlighted long-standing exhibits presented in consultation with Indigenous communities, others held ceremonies in honor of residential school victims and survivors, and a few said that they had long term plans to fix the problem.

But a difficult task awaits us: How can museums better tell the story of our nation in a way that faithfully reflects the role of Canadian institutions in the destruction of Indigenous lives and communities through the residential school system. ?

CBC News spoke with an Indigenous artist and the heads of two major Canadian museums to get a feel for the changes that may be in the pipeline and what they mean for reconciliation.

Great art captures who we are, says Museum of Human Rights CEO

Isha Khan is the CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. She took over the post last year after the museum came under fire for allegations of racism, homophobia, sexism and censorship. (Gary Solilak / CBC)

Isha Khan, CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, says the role of museums has evolved from showcasing artefacts to amplifying voices and stories.

On the subject of residential schools, the institution is currently exhibiting a piece entitled Witness Coverage, which was exhibited there for the first time in December 2015.

This is a wooden “quilt” made by Aboriginal artist and master sculptor Carey Newman, intended to relate the residential school experience through a collection of artefacts from survivors, former school sites, government buildings and churches.

“I call it a piece of truth,” Khan said of the artwork. “I think what we’ve learned is that art is powerful. Great art captures who we are and where we’ve been.

“You develop a very deep respect for it to be more than just an artifact… it’s a piece of someone’s life, their family history, something that’s full of emotion.”

Khan was appointed CEO last August after an external report revealed there was “pervasive and systemic” racism and censorship of content at the museum. Another report released just last month described allegations of abusive and fetishistic behavior towards racialized male employees, especially black men, while working for the institution.

Because museums capture historical narrative and memory, Khan said, these institutions have the potential to determine how we deal with the dark parts of the country’s history and how we shape our national identity with those realities in mind. .

“We are a platform for telling stories,” she said. “And if you look at it that way, there is limitless potential for us to educate, define who we are as a society at any given time, and then make sure there is a memory of where we come.

“We have a lot of work to do, because before we move forward, you know, you talk about the path of reconciliation. We have to know our truth – and we don’t know it.”

RCMP Museum plans to consult with Indigenous communities

Tara Robinson is the new CEO of the RCMP Heritage Center. (Richard Agecoutay / CBC)

The RCMP Heritage Center in Regina has not updated its exhibits for several years, said new CEO Tara Robinson. But that will change as he seeks national museum designation.

“There are a lot of stories, and some come with national pride, others with great celebration,” Robinson said. “But others come with sadness and a certain collective grief – [an example being] residential schools across this country… And we believe these stories need to be told.

The museum plans to tell the story of the RCMP from several perspectives, including that of Indigenous communities. At the time of the residential schools, the national police was responsible to forcibly remove children from their families and homes so that they can be sent to school.

“I firmly believe that museums are there to educate and that they are there to educate about the good, the bad and the opposite,” Robinson told CBC News.

The RCMP Heritage Center in Regina will receive $ 4.5 million in funding from the federal government as part of its application for national designation. (Richard Agecoutay / CBC)

In May, it was announced that the RCMP Heritage Center would become a national museum, with $ 4.5 million in federal funding to be distributed over a three-year period. Board chairman Steve McLellan said the funding would allow the museum to engage more with Indigenous communities than in the past.

However, he also said that the current exhibits make a minimum reference to the dark history between the mounted police and Indigenous communities in Canada.

That same month, the RCMP released data showing 102 members who identified as Indigenous had left the police in the past three years, after the figure was requested by MP Matthew Green.

Now the RCMP Heritage Center has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to build relationships with Indigenous communities and work with them to historicize the national police force, Robinson said.

“Consultation with indigenous communities will be deepened,” she said. “Probably the biggest we’ve ever done.”

Schools are only “part” of RCMP role in colonization, artist says

Carey Newman is the artist and master sculptor behind Witness Blanket, a wooden “quilt” featuring artifacts collected from residential schools, survivors, government institutions and churches. He is pictured here via Zoom. (SRC)

Carey Newman, the Indigenous artist, teacher and master sculptor behind Witness Coverage, said the RCMP played a much larger role in colonization beyond residential schools.

“If we’re going to tackle our identity, our collective identity of what it means to be Canadian, I think this step towards recognizing all of history when it comes to… the RCMP in this country is important, “said the artist, whose traditional name is Hayalthkin’geme.

“I hope this is not limited to residential schools.

He highlighted other examples of the RCMP’s historic interactions with Indigenous communities, such as their elimination from the Prairies and the application of the reserve system.

Newman is the son of a residential school survivor. One concept that helped him understand his father, he said, was what he described as “concentric trauma,” which roots intergenerational trauma into its original source of harm, rather than involving the responsibility of the individuals and families affected by it.

“I can see all the ways it affected my dad, and how it impacted our relationship and how I deal with that in the artwork that I do,” Newman said. “But maybe more importantly, in my personal relationships and the way I approach being a father to my daughter.”

Over 800 articles from 77 communities were collected for witness coverage. (Gary Solilak / CBC)

Having worked with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to exhibit the Witness Coverage, Newman said change is possible “if the intention is there” – but that institutions like the RCMP Heritage Center will have to step up.

“I know how difficult it can be to create change,” he said. “So, I guess there’s a bit of skepticism in me, waiting to see how those words are translated into action; what the exhibition says and looks like. “


Do you have information on anonymous graves, children who never made it home, or residential school staff and operations? Email your advice to CBC’s new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: Where [email protected].



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