Canada’s museums wrestle with history of residential schools

Canada’s museums wrestle with history of residential schools

by Sue Jones
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CBC News spoke with the CEO of the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, the CEO of the RCMP Heritage Centre and the artist behind an installation that chronicles the history of residential schools.

Witness Blanket

Witness Blanket, by Indigenous artist Carey Newman, is shown at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg on July 14, 2021. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Last month, the Canadian Museum of History announced that it would cancel its Canada Day celebrations after unmarked graves were found at the sites of former residential schools across the country — one of a number of adjustments it is making in the wake of the traumatic discoveries.

In an email to CBC News, the museum in Gatineau, Que., said other changes it has planned include signage detailing the history and ongoing impact of residential schools, a content warning for exhibits that covered the topic, and a full review of its content.

CBC News reached out to more than a dozen museums across the country about how they were addressing the legacy of residential schools in Canada.

Responses from the museums varied: Some pointed to long-running exhibits displayed in consultation with Indigenous communities, others hosted ceremonies to honour residential school victims and survivors, and a few said that they had long-term plans to address the issue.

But a difficult task lies ahead: How do museums better tell our nation’s story in a way that accurately reflects the role of Canadian institutions in destroying Indigenous lives and communities through the residential school system?

CBC News spoke with an Indigenous artist and the executives of two major Canadian museums to get a sense of what changes could be in store and what they mean for reconciliation.

Great art captures who we are, says CEO of human rights museum

Isha Khan Cmhr

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 over 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 artifacts to amplifying voices and stories.

On the topic of residential schools, the institution currently exhibits a piece called Witness Blanket, which was first displayed there in December 2015.

It is a wooden “quilt” made by Indigenous artist and master carver Carey Newman, meant to chronicle the residential school experience through a collection of items 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 learned is that art is powerful. Great art captures who we are and where we’ve been.

“You develop a really profound respect for it being more than just an artifact … this being a piece of someone’s life, their family history, something that is full of emotion.”

Khan was appointed to the CEO position last August, after an external report found that there was “pervasive and systemic” racism and content censorship at the museum. Another report released only last month outlined allegations of abusive and fetishistic behaviour toward racialized male employees, especially Black men, while they worked for the institution.

WATCH | Canadian museums confront treatment of Indigenous people

Because museums capture historical narrative and memory, Khan said, there is potential for those institutions 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’re a platform for storytelling,” 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 one point in time, and then to make sure there is a memory of where we came from.

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

RCMP museum plans to consult with Indigenous communities

Robinson Rcmp

Tara Robinson is the newly appointed CEO of the RCMP Heritage Centre. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

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

“There are many stories, and some come with national pride, some with great celebration,” said Robinson. “But others come with sadness and some collective grief — [an example being] the residential schools across this country.… And we believe that those stories need to be told.”

The museum plans to tell the history of the RCMP from multiple perspectives, including that of Indigenous communities. During the residential school era, the national police force was responsible for forcibly removing children from their families and homes so that they could be sent to the schools.

“I strongly believe that museums are here to educate and they are to educate about the good, the bad and the otherwise,” Robinson told CBC News.

Rcmp Heritage Centre

The RCMP Heritage Centre in Regina will receive $4.5 million in funding from the federal government as it seeks national designation. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

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

However, he also said that current exhibits make minimal reference to the dark history between the Mounties and Indigenous communities in Canada.

That same month, the RCMP released data which showed 102 members who identify as Indigenous had left the force in the last three years, after the figure was requested by member of Parliament Matthew Green.

Now, the RCMP Heritage Centre has an opportunity — and a responsibility — to build relationships with Indigenous communities and collaborate with them in historicizing the national police force, Robinson said.

“The consultation with Indigenous communities is going to be extensive,” she said. “Probably the most extensive we have ever done.”

Schools only ‘one part’ of RCMP role in colonization, artist says

Carey Newman Witness Blanket

Carey Newman is the artist and master carver behind Witness Blanket, a wooden ‘quilt’ featuring items collected from residential schools, survivors, government institutions and churches. He is pictured here via Zoom. (CBC)

Carey Newman, the Indigenous artist, professor and master carver behind Witness Blanket, said the RCMP played a much larger role in colonization beyond residential schools.

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

“I hope that it isn’t limited to residential schools.”

He pointed to other instances of the RCMP’s historical interactions with Indigenous communities, such as clearing them from the Prairies and enforcing the reserve system.

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

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

Witness Blanket

More than 800 items from 77 communities were gathered for Witness Blanket. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Having worked with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to display the Witness Blanket, Newman said change is possible “if the intent is there” — but that institutions like the RCMP Heritage Centre will need to walk the walk.

“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 these words are translated into action; what the exhibit says and looks like.”

Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home, or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC’s new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: [email protected].

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