Residential school exhibit shows church’s desire to ‘make amends’
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United Church leaders say a mobile learning centre that features photographs depicting the history of the Brandon Indian Residential School and the children who attended shows the church is sincere about taking responsibility for the harms caused by those institutions.
Knox United Church in Brandon worked with its United counterparts, Brandon University and Sioux Valley Dakota Nation to create the travelling exhibit, which is housed at Knox United Church and is available to schools and churches to borrow for educating people about the history of residential schools.
Difficult truths must be learned, not only by the institutions that ran the schools but by all Canadians, whatever their faith, said Westworth United Church Minister Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd.
“There’s some hard stories we need to hear, but that listening, that sitting in the fire, you might say, allows us to move forward — I pray — in a good way with our Indigenous sisters and brothers,” MacKenzie Shepherd said.
More than 20 elders and residents of Fisher River Cree Nation, located 255 kilometres northeast of Brandon, will travel to Winnipeg this weekend to participate in a series of events organized by Westworth United Church.
This weekend’s activities will focus on two residential schools in particular — Brandon and Assiniboia, the latter of which was located in Winnipeg.
The mobile learning centre features 27 large-format photos that cover parts of the history of the school, including images of the children that attended it, as well as information about the impact residential schools have had on Indigenous people.
The Brandon residential school operated outside of the Wheat City, in the rural municipality of Cornwallis, from May 1895 to June 1972. While the building was demolished in August 2000, there remains a cemetery where some students who died at the school were buried.
Many students who attended the Brandon school were from northern communities like Fisher River, including Stan McKay’s grandparents. McKay, a Fisher River Cree Nation elder and the first Indigenous leader of the United Church of Canada, said he has been on a journey of reconciliation, both as an Indigenous person whose family experienced the trauma of residential schools, and as a pastor.
“It’s been a long struggle, because I’ve been involved with the church, and the church has been party to the whole history of residential schools and the marginalization of the Indigenous community,” McKay said.
McKay has helped the United Church of Canada work toward truth and reconciliation for many years, and said the event this weekend is evidence of that work.
“The impact of the school goes back a long way, and we’re only now beginning to try to understand what impact it had upon the Indigenous community,” he said.
The United Church took over operations of 12 residential schools in Manitoba, including Brandon, in 1925. Previously, it had been operated by the mission board of the Methodist Church. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s website, when the United Church operated the Brandon school, many children ran away due to harsh discipline and poor food. Although concerns were raised with the United Church, no changes were made.
McKay hopes the United Church, and other churches in Canada, will do the difficult work of taking action to repair relationships with Indigenous communities in light of truth and reconciliation.
“I think many, many faith communities have struggled to discover ways in which to be involved,” McKay said. “One of my hopes would be that we begin to understand Canada’s history and the involvement of churches in the schools.”
Events like the one happening this weekend show that the United Church is not denying its involvement in the residential school system but is holding itself accountable, MacKenzie Shepherd said.
“I think what we are doing gives evidence of our sincerity in this, and our deep desire to learn from it and make amends and move forward in healing,” MacKenzie Shepherd said.
For Rev. Craig Miller, minister of Knox United Church in Brandon, it’s important that people understand how disastrous the residential school system truly was for Indigenous cultures. He said he hopes that, through the mobile learning centre, people will begin to understand that and why trauma from residential schools still exists today.
“We see the impact of that in Indigenous communities today. We hope that people might have a more compassionate response, and a more informed response … because this is all a part of our history.”
The Brandon residential school display will be at Westworth United Church in Winnipeg for school classes and public viewing until Sunday.
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