A reception was held at the Fort Frances Museum last Wednesday to mark the first official opening of two exhibits that focus on the history of residential schools.
An introduction was given by museum curator Sherry George, followed by some words from Fort Frances Coun. Wendy Brunetta and Rev. Barb Miller of Knox United Church here.
“The purpose of a museum exhibit is to present information from prior history so that we learn and grow, and at the very least do not repeat the mistakes of our past,” George said in her opening remarks.
“Since becoming curator, I've had the good fortune to celebrate many noteworthy achievements with you, as well as the wonderful anniversaries of a growing community,” she noted.
“But this summer's exhibit is vastly different," George added. "Different because the story we share is one of the darkest of Canada's history and, quite possibly, the most important.”
The main exhibit was researched and created by the Lake of the Woods Museum in Kenora in 2008—the same year the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established.
A few dozen people gathered for its opening day, silently listening to the stories and statements before heading outside the museum for a ceremonial drumming song.
Following it and an audience-requested encore, the group headed back inside the museum and to the second floor to view a complementary exhibit about the two residential schools that existed in Fort Frances.
Couchiching First Nation historian Glenn Jourdain headed the upstairs exhibit that features photos of the residential schools, their students and sports teams, as well as documents, including a ledger from St. Margaret's Indian Residential School that contains the names and student numbers of every child that attended it, including his father.
Jourdain has spoken to hundreds of students and educators over the past 11 years about his personal experience at the school, as well as historical information about both the former St. Margaret's School, closed and torn down in 1962, and Fort Frances Indian Residential School, which ceased operating in 1974 and now is Nanicost, Ltd., which houses the offices of First Nations' programs and services as well as the Seven Generations Education Institute.
Jourdain said he doesn't just tell his own story but wants to help “explain to the people of Canada why the Indian residential schools existed in the first place.”
While most of what Jourdain spoke about was from memory, he referred to a journal he wrote entitled, “My life at the Indian Residential Schools.”
Those on hand sat around tables and stood within the exhibit walls on the museum's second floor, attentively listening to Jourdain describe his childhood—from playing outside with his siblings and other community kids to being sent to St. Margaret's when he was eight years old, graduating from Grade 8 at the age of 15, and eventually travelling to Spanish, Ont. for two more years of schooling at St. Charles Garnier Residential School.
Jourdain attended St. Margaret's School from 1948-55. Even though it was only half-a-mile away, he and other students were not allowed to go home.
And even though he never attended Fort Frances' other residential school, and did not know much about the inside, he knew “the agenda was the same.”
“Why did those kids have to live there?" mused Jourdain. "To kill the Indian culture.”
He spoke about his time at a residential school in Spanish, Ont., how he's sure it was because of his “disobedience,” and playing hockey with his classmates while spending 10 months a year almost 1,000 miles away from home.
“When you speak with Indian school survivors today, you'll get many stories,” noted Jourdain.
"Some similar, some different, some will be told with anger and bitterness and tears, and I can understand that.
“Others will be told with some tolerance—I try to do that,” he added.
“To some, their years at the school was a terrible and even horrifying experience,” Jourdain added.
“And believe it or not, there are some that will say, 'It wasn't that bad.'”
The most important thing, said Jourdain, is when talking about the residential schools, they speak of the truth.
“We must remember when we speak we can only tell one story," he stressed. "I can only tell mine the way I remember it.”