Legacy group breaks ground on memorial at former River Heights residential school
The crowd fell silent as the shovels entered the earth. It was a triumphant moment, but also a bittersweet one, as noted by David Monias, vice-chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak: “When I look at this, I don’t like to be grim, but it reminds me of the unmarked graves.”
On the morning of Aug. 4, construction began on a commemorative monument and gathering place that will honour survivors of the Assiniboia Residential School, a longtime dream of the late residential school survivor and First Nations leader, Elder Ted Fontaine.
Assiniboia Residential School survivor Elder Betty Ross, 75, opened the groundbreaking ceremony with a prayer. Ross, along with Indigenous leaders, former students, politicians, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and inter-generational survivors, helped unveil the details of the $1.3-million project at the former Assiniboia Residential School site at 621 Academy Rd.
“We all have to know why we’re here,” Ross said in her speech. “We all have to know where we come from, what our purpose is on this land that we’re standing on right now and where we are going. We need to be grateful and thankful for every step and breath we take in this life.”
The Assiniboia Residential School opened in June 1958 between Academy Road and Wellington Crescent in River Heights. A project of the federal Indian Affairs department, the school was managed by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Between 1958 and 1973, more than 750 students from over 80 Manitoba communities, as well as from Saskatchewan and Northwestern Ontario, attended the school.
The groundbreaking ceremony was the result of years of hard work by the Assiniboia Residential School Legacy Group, a non-profit organization formed by a group of survivors from the Assiniboia Residential School who came together for a reunion at the school site in 2017.
Many of the former students’ stories were compiled in the book, Did You See Us?, published by the University of Manitoba Press last year.
Ross’s speech was followed by an honours song Wayne Ruby and a blessing by Elder Sheldon Cote. Remarks were also shared by MKO vice-chief David Monias, Southern Chiefs’ Organization grand chief Jerry Daniels, and Assembly of First Nations regional chief Cindy Woodhouse, among others.
“Let the people come here to heal themselves,” Elder Cote said. “We’re in a very dark time again with our people, and what we can do is we can educate. We can educate the Canadian people but also, at the same time, our nations. We need to do our best to heal our people. We can’t change what happened, but we can heal ourselves.”
The commemorative monument and gathering place will feature a circle of 28 metal markers reflecting arrowheads engraved with the names of the former students’ 86 home communities, as well as space to place traditional medicine and commemorations. There will also be paving stones with the names of the 750-plus students, an area for a sacred fire circle, seating, interpretive signage in English and Indigenous languages, accessible walkways and landscaping with wildflowers, grasses and plantings.
“This day has been years in the making,” said Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman. “I want to acknowledge the dedication of many individuals in moving this project forward. The Legacy Group knows that reconciliation begins with education, including the telling of stories that were not told in the past.”
Partners in the project include the City of Winnipeg, the government of Manitoba, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection – which has offices in the former school building – the RCMP, Westworth United Church and several other community partners.
The legacy group hopes to open the gathering place to the public by Sept. 30, 2022, the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Assiniboia Residential School Legacy Fund is collecting online donations through the Winnipeg Foundation at https://tinyurl.com/ykw2k4bz
Kelsey James is a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review. She graduated from Red River College’s creative communications program in 2018 as a journalism major and holds a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric, writing and communications from the University of Winnipeg. A lifelong Winnipegger who grew up in southwest Winnipeg, Kelsey is thrilled to be covering the neighbourhoods she still calls “home.”