A memorial near St. Boniface Cathedral could be an excellent way to tell the stories of Sagkeeng First Nation children who died at the historic St. Boniface Industrial School operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Boniface. Archbishop Albert LeGatt has announced the church’s plan to erect such a monument jointly with Sagkeeng First Nation.
The location is prominent, accessible and scenically interesting, near the Red River, at the heart of the Franco-Manitoban community and in a dense cluster of Roman Catholic institutions. The industrial school itself stood a few streets away, at Des Meurons Street and Hamel Avenue.
A memorial, however, can be much more than a stone marker. It can be a place for gathering and commemoration. It can be a platform for telling stories. It can be a communal expression of sadness, regret, redemption or other values that may need expression, and which may vary over time.
The pulling down of statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth on the legislative grounds on July 1 and the ensuing political debate showed how memorials from yesteryear may become unsustainable with the passage of time. The church and the First Nation should plan a monument that expresses the truths already known about the St. Boniface school. They should also leave room for further truths to come to light.
It is known from the 2015 report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that churches operated residential schools for the purpose of teaching Christian doctrine to Indigenous children. It is known that the Canadian government financed rapid expansion of the residential school network after annexation of the Hudson’s Bay Company territory in 1870. Canada’s purpose was to separate Indigenous children from their parents, their language and their culture and inculcate European settler values.
It is known also that nutrition, health care and discipline in the schools were so bad that many of the children died. Their graves are gradually coming to light as First Nations seek the burial places of their long-lost children.
The St. Boniface Industrial School, which was in operation from 1889 until 1905, was one of several such institutions in Manitoba. The Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land, for example, supported one at St. Paul, Middlechurch, a little north of today’s north Perimeter Highway.
Archbishop LeGatt’s project should encourage the Anglican diocese and the Peguis First Nation to look into the rise and fall of the Middlechurch industrial school. A way should be found to tell the stories of the children who attended that school — and the stories of those who entered the school but never got out alive.
These projects should not be conceived in haste. Sagkeeng First Nation, Peguis First Nation and other Indigenous communities should take all the time they need to locate the unmarked graves of their lost children, record their stories and pass those stories on to future generations.
Some children attended the schools because the government sent police officers to round them up and deliver them to the schools. Some attended because their parents wanted them to have the advantages they thought might be gained through education in European culture.
The residential school narrative is the story of Canada’s cruelty to Indigenous families. That story is made up of many more stories, of individual schools and individual students, and these should not all be squeezed into the mould of a single national narrative. Archbishop LeGatt’s project should show Canada how to tell a local piece of that story in terms that can be widely understood.