Podcast series reveals trauma of residential schools

Historica Canada's three-part series to speak to experiences of different children


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The host of a new podcast series on residential schools hopes all Canadians will plug in their earphones to learn about the harm done by schools purpose-built to assimilate First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

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The host of a new podcast series on residential schools hopes all Canadians will plug in their earphones to learn about the harm done by schools purpose-built to assimilate First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

Historica Canada is publishing three educational podcasts Tuesday to acknowledge the legacy of residential schools and honour survivors.

Hosted by Winnipegger Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, each Residential Schools episode highlights the experiences of different students: First Nations, Métis and Inuit survivors — all of whom entered schools with different identities, yet experienced many of the same abuses.

Illustration by Halie Finney RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS: Historica Canada launches its three-part educational podcast series, Residential Schools. Hosted by Winnipeg-based journalist Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, the episodes detail First Nations, Metis and Inuit survivor experiences in the church-run, government-funded schools created to assimilate them.

“The intergenerational trauma and blood memory, if you will, that comes from that legacy is super important to share with every single person that lives in Canada, whether they are Indigenous, non-Indigenous or new Canadians,” said Robinson-Desjarlais, a second-generation residential school survivor.

“The (over representation of Indigenous people in) child welfare, the health care system, the justice system — these are all direct effects from residential schools. I think that’s important for mainstream Canadian society to understand. Not only mainstream Canadian society, but even ourselves as Indigenous people.”

The first 20-minute history lesson in the series takes listeners on a journey through a school day in the life of First Nations students like Riley Burns at institutions such as Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Sask.

Robinson-Desjarlais speaks about how little academic learning actually took place in the schools. Instead, she explains as little as two hours were dedicated to academic learning daily. The rest of the time was dedicated to physical labour, religious study and meals often more suitable for livestock than humans.

Clips from Burns, a member of James Smith Cree Nation, and other survivors play throughout, as do details about Burns’ story of physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and lost culture.

“You had to fight for yourself. You didn’t have time to be hugging anybody. You didn’t have time to be crying in a corner. You better be standing up and fighting for yourself,” he recalls.

A guest on the first episode, Anishinaabe academic and Free Press columnist Niigaan Sinclair also talks about how abuse in residential schools was so rampant students began to internalize it and abuse each other.

The last residential school closed in 1996, and while many of the remnants of such schools have been destroyed, Robinson-Desjarlais said it’s critical Canadians revisit the history, be empathetic and recognize the lasting effects, from alcoholism to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“The stories of these people are super intimate and I think in a classroom setting or on their own, it hits you in the heart,” she said, adding she hopes the episodes will be valuable learning tools for teachers.

Frank Deer, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Education, said educators are increasingly using multimedia, oftentimes documentaries, to teach students about the histories of Indigenous people. That’s especially the case, Deer said, when the subject is outside the realm of a teacher’s expertise.

“Elders are passing. It is important to store and share in an appropriate way: their stories, their languages, their perspectives, so that people may have access to them and do well by them,” he added.


Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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