Calls are growing for a former residential school site in Fort Smith to be demolished, amid the grim discovery in late May of a grave site containing the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Just days after that news broke, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos told members of the legislative assembly about the feelings of some of her constituents towards buildings in Fort Smith associated with the residential school system.
Martselos connected the histories of Paul William Kaeser (PWK) High School and Joseph Burr Tyrrell (JBT) elementary school with the Fort Smith Federal Day School, Breynat Hall Residence and the Roman Catholic Day School, or Grandin College.
Buildings that would become PWK were constructed in 1956 and served as the Roman Catholic Day School and as the Grandin College residence, said Department of Infrastructure spokesperson James Ross.
Grandin was originally set up as a seminary for boys preparing to enter the priesthood, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).
It operated from 1960 until 1985 and during that time its mandate changed to focus on educating future Indigenous leaders. Former premier Stephen Kakfwi and long-serving MLA and cabinet minister Michael Miltenberger attended Grandin and told Up Here magazine in 2016 how valuable the college was in helping them with their future achievements.
The site underwent additions and renovations in 1974 and in the late 1990s. One building was eventually become PWK and the Grandin building was removed.
What would become JBT was built in 1958 as the Fort Smith Federal Day School for Indigenous students. Additions were added in 1962 and 1974 and upgrades in 2007-2012.
Old buildings, dark history
Explaining why the school buildings should be replaced, Martselos cited their aging conditions as well as their historical baggage.
“There is obviously the historical legacy of residential school that still lingers. Numerous people have told me over the years that it can be hard sometimes to enter or even go in these buildings because it is a constant reminder, living reminder, of the personal and inter-generational trauma from residential schools,” she said on June 1.
The following day, she focused on Breynat Hall, which currently serves as a single-student residence building at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus.
The hall was considered a residential school under the terms of the Indian Resident School Settlement Agreement, college spokesperson Jayne Murray said in an email.
It was operated by the Catholic Church as a residential school hostel from 1957 to 1975.
One student named Emma Elton died there on June 18, 1960, according to the NCTR.
“Given the undeniable historical legacy of this building, it’s no surprise that Fort Smith constituents feel uncomfortable, to say the least, with its continued presence in our community,” Martselos said.
“With residential schools once again coming to the forefront of a national discussion, I want to harness this moment and really emphasize that for many people, there is much pain, trauma, and suffering that’s associated with Breynat Hall. There’s a strong community desire to see it decommissioned and replaced,” Martselos said, later adding that all buildings formerly used as residential schools “need to go, period.”
Breynat slated for replacement
Education Minister R.J. Simpson told Martselos that his department is aware of the problematic history of some school buildings in Fort Smith.
He said PWK and JBT are currently in solid condition and there were no plans to replace them.
Breynat Hall is a different story, however.
Simpson acknowledged the Aurora College foundational review of 2018 found the hall to be outdated and disturbing for students because it was a residential school.
The review noted that this “historical fact contributes to the general opinion that students do not want to attend the Fort Smith campus for their studies.”
It is hoped that the future plan is to build a new residence, Simpson said.
“Officials have raised this issue with the government of Canada, I raised this issue with (Northern Affairs) Minister (Dan) Vandal directly. As part of the transformation of Aurora College, we need a suitable residence and that’s not a suitable residence for the world-class institution that we are creating,” Simpson said.
Murray agreed, saying that following engagement with partners and stakeholders — including Indigenous governments — Aurora found that Breynat should be replaced due to its history and physical condition.
“The GNWT and Aurora College have taken a clear and consistent position that the successful transformation of Aurora College into a polytechnic university includes replacing Breynat Hall,” she said.
Discussions with the federal government on polytechnic university infrastructure and on replacing the hall are ongoing, but it’s not yet known when the building might come down, Murray said.
Breynat Hall must go
Jeannie Marie Jewell, a residential school survivor from Fort Smith spent about three years, intermittently, at Breynat Hall when she was a child.
She was resolute and clear about her position: the building must be torn down as soon as possible.
“It should be demolished and they can build a memorial site if they want. I believe the building itself holds too many disheartening moments for residential school survivors. When I look at it I don’t think anything nice of Breynat Hall,” she said.
Jewell, who was the MLA for Thebacha in the 1990s and held several cabinet portfolios, said she attended Breynat Hall because her mother was often sick and in the hospital, even though she was from Fort Smith.
The hall housed students from Lutsel K’e and the Tlicho region, she said.
“It was mainly supervised by the nuns. As I look back now, it was really structured and strict. Some of their methods were not nice. Years after, when I thought about Breynat Hall, I heard about all the sexual abuse that happened there. At night, I remember I was too scared to look when the priests or the nuns took some of the kids out. And these little girls would come back sobbing. So, what did they do with them at night? I spoke to a survivor who was there at the same time as me, and she said she was sexually abused there.”
Jewell also attended residential school at La Pointe and Bompas Halls in Fort Simpson and Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife, and the Fort Smith Federal Day School.
“The federal day schools hold dark histories too. There was a lot of blatant racism. All the non-Aboriginal kids sat in the front of the room and Aboriginal kids at the back. And they would hit us with a ruler or a pointer. (At the Fort Smith Day School) the vice-principal would just walk into the girls change room and watch us change. Today they could be charged with child exploitation for that.”
Despite the mistreatment that occurred at the other schools in Fort Smith, she’s less certain of the need to remove them.
“I want to make it clear, JBT was never a residential school. It’s an old school but it’s built solid. (And) I don’t think Grandin College had the dark history in comparison to Breynat hall. It’s the one that should be demolished.”