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Heavy burden: Work needed to fill knowledge gaps, including Calgary’s residential school

Acknowledging residential school victims across Canada is important, but it keeps wounds fresh for First Nations people, said a local Indigenous relations expert.

Work to learn more about Calgary’s residential school is no different.

The bodies of residential school victims in Kamloops, B.C. and at the Marieval Residential school northeast of Regina, Sask., raised questions about Calgary’s own residential school history.

During a strategic meeting of council on June 28, Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra asked what plans there are to examine St. Dunstan’s industrial school.

St. Dunstan’s was situated just south of the present-day Bonnybrook wastewater treatment plant. The site is near the junction of Glenmore Trail and Deerfoot Trail.

Brief history of the school

St. Dunstan’s was also referred to as the Calgary Indian Industrial School.

Research by local historian Harry Sanders shows that students at St. Dunstan’s were used at the time to demonstrate the success of government policy with regard to Indigenous peoples. Students were involved in various public events around Calgary.

There was a death at the school, according to various recorded accounts.

It was Jack White Goose Flying, who died of tuberculosis in 1899. It was recorded that any individuals staying at the school were sent home to their families if they took ill.

Jack White Goose Flying was the exception. Calgary’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report was named after White Goose Flying.

White Goose Flying’s death sets St. Dunstan’s apart from other Alberta residential schools, to a degree. Others had numerous recorded deaths and cases of illness. For example, St. Barnabas residential school in the nearby Tsuut’ina Reserve had 29 cases of tuberculosis in 1920. There were 33 students that year, meaning only four were uninfected.

St. Dunstan’s itself began operation in 1896 and shut down in 1907.

This archived photo from the Glenbow Archives shows the school when it was still standing. PROVIDED BY JOANNE SCHMIDT – Curator of Indigenous Studies and World Cultures at the Glenbow Museum.

Questions about plans for the site

Councillor Carra said he wants to know what work is being done at the site and what funding is being pursued to try and find any unmarked burial sites. Especially since public art projects are planned to commemorate the site. Councillor Carra said that the art should come later.

“In light of the recent discoveries happening across the country, and the province’s announcement of releasing $8 million for the research of unmarked burial sites, I want to know what we can do at the city to ensure we gain access to that research and funding,” Councillor Carra said.

“Before we can begin planning art and seeking meaningful reconciliation, we need to discover the truth.”

Until official inquiries and statements are made, consultation will be ongoing between the group planning to install the artwork and the Indigenous groups within the city.

Katie Black, General Manager of community services at the city of Calgary, said that the art in question will move ahead, but only with the utmost respect for the site.

“We anticipate we can go forward in a good way, but the discussions are just beginning,” Black said at the time.

“And we know it’s important to engage with our First Nations partners before we proceed with any preconceived approaches regarding what any public art on the site might look like. It is the early days of the investigation.”

Fatigue over continued exposure to trauma

While the investigations and raised awareness are good, some in the Indigenous community are frustrated with the constant reopening of old wounds. The uncovering of more atrocities is leaving a heavy burden on Indigenous Canadians, said a Calgary expert.

Dr. Linda ManyGuns, associate vice-president of indigenization and decolonization at Mount Royal University, said that accountability from the government is needed to move past that.

“Culturally, we say that you don’t speak about the bad things because we believe talking is medicine. When you keep on talking about the bad things the wound is kept open. The pain is kept constantly there,” ManyGuns said.

An example ManyGuns gave were residential school payouts from a few years ago.

She said survivors were disclosing abuses to strangers to receive the money. And when that money was used to buy anything, it reminded them of the abuse.

Burden shifting off of Indigenous people

The constant news of the past, ranging from the residential schools to the 60s scoop, is leading to exhaustion.

ManyGuns said that the uncovering of the past shouldn’t have to rest on only Indigenous people.

“The government has all the records, and yet they make us find and discover, find and discover, while they are holding all the cards. We have to validate everything piece by piece with the little things we pick up,” ManyGuns said.

“It is time these churches and the government release the information they have so that it isn’t the hard work of the poorest of the poor in Canada trying to find out what happened.  The Canadian population has to say why are there these gaps in knowledge. Academics need to fill in these boxes.”

St. Dunstan’s is one of four known residential schools in the Calgary area.

The city has not yet engaged with Treaty Seven Nations about what kind of commemoration of the site would be appropriate.