Former residential school receives commemorative ring
A ceremony was held outside a former residential school in Portage la Prairie Sept. 20 introducing a ring commissioned by the government of Canada for its Indigenous People acknowledging residential school survivors. Pictured from left to right, David Daniels, a residential school survivor, Dennis Meeches Chief of Long Plain First Nations and Shirley Bernard, executive director of the Portage Friendship Centre. (BRIAN OLIVER/THE GRAPHIC/POSTMEDIA)
The former Indian Residential School in Portage la Prairie received a commemorative ring from the Canadian government acknowledging residential school survivors.
A ceremony was held outside of the former school, now known as the Rufus Prince Building, Sept. 20 unveiling the commemorative marker.
The building, which turns 100 years old this year, operated as a residential school equipped with classrooms, dormitories, recreation spaces, infirmaries and a variety of offices. The site, like most residential schools, was developed to provide instruction on farming and domestic work and still maintains its original quality.
“In some ways it’s destiny that the building is still here standing as a testament to residential school survivors,” said Dennis Meeches, Chief of Long Plain First Nation. “The building was declared a provincial historic site in 2005 and we are working to have it declared a national historic site.”
It is important to us because it gives national recognition from Canada to showcase to the world and share the story of residential school experiences. Our goal is to have it declared a national historic site but also have it become an education and awareness centre.”
Meeches hopes to display the ring outside on the grounds of the former residential school, but stated that the necessary measures need to first be taken to ensure it is protected from the elements.
For Pearl Pelltier, a former student at the residential school, the marker acknowledging residential school survivors doesn’t change anything.
“The thing that I wonder about is other than teaching people about what we went through, what else is it going to do? Are things going to change for our people,” questioned Pelltier. “What can happen? I’m hoping that this will never happen again. I don’t know what the answer is. It’s really painful to talk about this, it brings back all the bad stuff.”
Without going into detail, it was bad. It wasn’t just because we were here, it’s because of what went on inside,” said a choked up Pelltier.
She recounted a tale of her gripping escape from the school in the winter of 1949. The then 15-year-old Pelltier, along with a few other girls, kicked the bars off a window frame and escape from the school one winter evening. The girls risked hypothermia and followed the nearby river home for 12 hours through the night.
“I spent a couple months in the hospital because of my frozen feet,” she recalled. “My dad took me out of school because he figured if I tried (to escape) again I may freeze. We actually could have froze, at one point we laid down we were so tired. Had we gone to sleep I’m sure we would have froze to death.”
Pelltier does however consider the commemorative marker a good way for her people to tell their story. She recalled how students in the school were often punished for attempting to speak their native tongue, causing many to forget the language completely.
“I don’t know if other people talk about (their experiences in residential schools), but I don’t go into detail, added Pelltier. “To this day I can’t sleep with the light off, I need to have a light on. There’s a story behind that too, but I don’t want to (get into it). Even at (the age of) 82 I sleep with the light on,” laughed Pelltier.