Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a showing of, “I’tustogalis: Our Voices, Our Stories,” at Vancouver Island University as part of their Aboriginal Learning Series. This documentary is about the recent dismantling of the St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay, British Columbia, in 2015. It profiles the history of the school and Aboriginal children forced to attend it, some as young as six. Elders that survived this sad history share how they were abused and coped under near concentration camp conditions. Hearing them talk about their time at St. Michael’s was tough and I admit I shed several tears.
The film also documents the coming together of former students to witness the demolition of the building. Despite the darker aspects of the film, director Barb Cranmer captures the healing that happens as the building is torn down and how the Kwakwaka’wakw culture continues to play a strong role in the healing of survivors and their families. The film is a testament to the resiliency and the strength of the survivors.
One might ask why I went. I felt compelled to go for a number of reasons. First, this documentary hit home because I know it is a common story across Canada and I wanted to educate myself on the true history of Aboriginal people. Secondly, I believe it is important for every Canadian to learn about the history and culture of Aboriginal people so they can be educated on what Aboriginal peopled endured in residential schools and Indian hospitals, but also so they can understand how this period impacted governance, societal, and family structures in First Nation communities.
It’s comforting to know that today is a new chapter and most Canadians want to understand what happened, even if it means being uncomfortable with the truth of what happened; this is a huge step in the healing that is taking place. Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came out with their recommendations in 2015, educational institutions across Canada are making it a priority for Canadians to learn about this chapter in Canada’s history, as well as educate people about local Aboriginal culture. It also gives Canadians an opportunity to learn about the richness of Aboriginal culture, spirituality, teachings, and traditional ways of being and the positives it can bring to Canadian culture instead of the negative stereotypes prevalent in society. One could say that Aboriginal people may be finally getting the dignity and respect they deserve.
I am inspired that both Cape Breton University (CBU) and Vancouver Island University (VIU) are taking steps to provide opportunities for community members, staff, faculty, and students to learn about the culture, history and reconciliation of the Aboriginal peoples on whose territory they reside. CBU is currently offering a free online course about Mi’kmaq culture and history. VIU offers an Aboriginal speakers series and workshops designed to teach people about local Aboriginal culture, protocols, and ways of being as well as how to support and respect Aboriginal learners in post-secondary education.
Moreover, I am so proud to be working for Cape Breton University and Vancouver Island University on In.Business: A National Mentorship Program for Indigenous Youth in the Pacific region. This program mentors Aboriginal youth on the concepts of business so that they can make an informed choice about their future education plans. It is giving youth the confidence and leadership skills to apply for business studies. These institutions are helping to empower Canada’s next generation of Aboriginal leaders.
Cape Breton University – “Learning from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki” (MIKM 2701).
Vancouver Island University – https://www2.viu.ca/aboriginal/docs/FNPro-DBrochureONLINE.pdf
Pacific Regional Manager, In.Business
Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business Studies
Cape Breton University (in partnership with Vancouver Island University to deliver the In.Business Program in British Columbia and Alberta)