Residential Schools: The Red Lake Story
This exhibit was created by our institution, to complement a national exhibition called Where are the Children? Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools, which we hosted from February 1 to April 30, 2006.
Our proposal to create the original physical exhibition, the Red Lake Story, received the full support and cooperation of local, regional and national Aboriginal organizations, Chiefs and Councils of 16 First Nations communities, survivors, descendants of survivors, mental health workers, former residential school teachers, social workers, foster parents, the schools and many others.
The exhibit included more than 100 archival photos and documents, as well as stories submitted by survivors and observations by non-native people who had worked in the north, such as Hudson's Bay Store managers and government workers. The exhibit focused on two schools in our area, and covered the following topics: the history of each school, who were the children who attended the schools, where they came from, their lives before residential school, how they travelled to the schools, what they learned in class, their interactions with their siblings, their daily routines at school, such as chores, meals, sleeping arrangements, church and recreational activities. We then asked survivors and their families to help us identify and locate as many of the children in the photos as possible. Our goal was to take the question posed in the national exhibit, "Where are the Children?", ask it on a regional level, and engage those people directly affected in finding the answer. At the beginning of our research survivors were hesitant to share their memories, and it was very difficult to access information. However, we were successful in gaining their trust, and before long we had compiled a wealth of information relevant to our area.
The exhibition was timely, as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the Government of Canada were in the last stages of negotiating the Settlement Agreement for survivors, and the topic was in the headlines almost daily. As Red Lake has a large Aboriginal population, it became evident that the outcome of the agreement would have a significant impact on our community.
As the negotiations progressed, we realized that most local residents, including the museum staff and board of directors, as well as teachers, social workers, and many others who come in contact with Aboriginal people daily, had minimal knowledge (if any) about the residential schools experience, and its impact upon the Aboriginal people living in the community. In fact, many Aboriginal youth were not aware of how they, themselves, had been shaped by their families' past, as it was rarely discussed in their homes. We felt that presenting the local story would contextualize the national story, and would put a face on the people affected by the residential school system.
The Red Lake Story was extremely powerful and had a significant influence on many visitors, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike. As they toured the exhibit, visitors began to understand the connection between the visible incidence of homelessness, alcoholism, suicide, crime, and a multitude of other social problems plaguing members of the Red Lake community today, and the social dislocation that was the legacy of the residential school experience. A direct result of the exhibition was a perceptible increase in tolerance, understanding and dialogue among our community members. Prior to the exhibition, some non-native people were strongly opposed to survivor compensation, but their positions changed after viewing the exhibit.
Many Aboriginal families and individuals, including homeless people and women living in shelters (most of whom are of Native ancestry), toured the exhibit together. It was very moving for our staff to observe their reactions as they identified themselves in the photos, or people they knew.
When the exhibit closed, we received this e-mail from Karen Wastasecoot, Exhibit Coordinator, Legacy of Hope Foundation:
"Grateful thanks to you, your community committee and staff for your commitment and hard work to address the legacy of residential schools. You can pass this on to them and let them know that the feedback that we have received from those who have been involved in the previous exhibits that this has been one of the best in terms of community involvement and development of the complementary exhibit. As a residential school survivor, I thank you for raising awareness about the history of residential schools and the support and opportunity for survivors in their healing process"
Nearly everyone who toured the Red Lake Story asked us to make it available on our website. Due to a lack of time, resources and appropriate software, it was not possible for us at that time to undertake the creation of a virtual exhibit. You can imagine our excitement when we heard about CHIN's Community Memories program.
Shortly after the program was announced, we sent e-mails to 20 individuals and organizations that had either seen the Red Lake Story or were familiar with residential school history, informing them that we had an opportunity to access funding to adapt our story to a virtual exhibit. Within a week we had received 14 letters of support.
We wish to thank everyone for their assistance in preparing exhibition. If you have any questions please feel free to contact us.