By contributor John Hill

The Indian Residential School (IRS) system has become more familiar to Canadians in recent years, but the terrible aims of the schools, the abuses that occurred there, and the sheer scale of the project remain hard to grasp. At 10 a.m. on February 19 in the Malaspina Theatre, Professor Laurie Meijer Drees of VIU’s Department of First Nations Studies will give a presentation on residential schools as part of the Arts and Humanities Colloquium series.

For more than 100 years, continuing until the 1990s, over 150 thousand First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were removed from their homes and sent to government-funded, church-run residential schools with a clear goal: “To eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children,” as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) explains on its website.

This familial and cultural fracture resulted in a lasting trauma, both for the individuals involved and for the broad community of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The TRC, established as part of the settlement that won when former IRS students successfully took the government and churches to court, the body was tasked with finding the truth of what happened in these schools, and with inspiring healing and reconciliation in all Canadians. Its final report was published in December 2015.

Meijer Drees, who holds a doctorate from the University of Calgary, worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a researcher for its Missing Children and Unmarked Burial Project.

Entitled “Why We ‘Care:’ Thoughts on Canada’s Indian Residential School History, Medical Care, Consent, and the Law,” her talk will investigate the significance of that TRC Final Report and will offer an overview of residential schools, published histories, the work of the TRC, and recent community-based initiatives. In addition, Meijer Drees uses newly-released details gained from her work as a TRC researcher and oral historian to illustrate and share perspectives on why the need to care about this history remains important.

Meijer Drees notes that the report supports and builds on the survivor testimonies that have so far provided our insights into these institutions. On the positive side, she sees that Canadian citizens have responded to the TRC’s work with a variety of community-based public initiatives aimed at increasing wider appreciation and understanding of this history, ranging from blogs to workshops, cultural events, and public lectures: Canadians’ efforts to cast light on this history are now gaining momentum.

Nevertheless, Meijer Drees speaks of the “dark shadow” that the residential school system continues to cast over the nation, and observes that “despite the TRC’s efforts to acknowledge and record residential school experiences, impacts, and consequences, many gaps in our collective understanding of these institutions still exist.” Part of the problem is the fact that the multi-faceted history of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools is very complex, and the sheer volume of this material in itself poses a challenge to our collective understanding and action.

The new National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg houses seven thousand video statements of survivors and intergenerational survivors of the schools, and millions of documents from government and churches. Meijer Drees questions how we make sense of these “schools” and what happened in them, and who should be interested in these histories and why.