History Repeating: We Were Taught Differently at the Welland Museum

“If I were appointed by the Dominion Government for the express purpose of spreading tuberculosis, there is nothing finer in existence than the average Indian residential school.” (The Indian Affairs Superintendent, 1948)

It is synchronicity, if you will, that We Were Taught Differently: The Indian Residential School Experience is on display at the Welland Museum right now, until the middle of April 2020. As I write this, that wonderfully incisive and accurate image of a Canadian Flag, upside down, with the black (in tone and tenor) text ‘Reconciliation Is Dead’ is appropriately proliferate, in media both print and social. The latest confrontation regarding Canada’s history – and present – of Indigenous and non – Indigenous relations is flaring up, and for those of my age whom remember Oka, it seems that nothing has changed, even the rhetoric. I mean this both in the hollow platitudes from one group, and the bald calls for violence from another. On that sometimes informative, sometimes vile, space of Twitter, one person commented that some #ReformCon politician describing the violent interaction between ‘yellow vests’ and Wet’suwet’en supporters as ‘just removing garbage’ was not a new phrase for Indigenous to hear in Canada, as they – as evidenced repeatedly in the residential school system – were / are / sadly, will be, I fear, considered ‘detritus’ or ‘garbage’ to be ‘removed.’

The last federal election, where the ‘debate’ about ‘Indigenous’ issues was all about pipelines and resource extraction, was a low point of the whole affair (even worse than Scheer’s cowardice re: comparing many Canadians to dogs, but then again, his call for violence re: the Wet’suwet’en is unsurprising for someone who’s dogmatic religious cult is the one, in We Were Taught Differently, that isn’t listed as having apologized for their role in cultural genocide. If you consider that when Charlie Angus called for a proper apology from the ‘Pope’, Scheer assembled a passell of Catholic ‘leaders’ – several of whom are under indictment or investigation for aiding and abetting serial child rape – to say that wasn’t ‘necessary.’ So, his ‘rule of law’ hypocrisy is unsurprising…and not new).

Let me return to the display at Welland Museum, but via this testimonial, to touch back to Scheer and his ilk: “Those who suffered sexual abuse are the ones still drinking, if they haven’t already fallen through the cracks. The anger is varied. Everyone has their own approach to dealing with this horrible legacy.” Those are the words of Garnet Angeconeb, emblazoned on one of the many large material panels that are spread through the space. There are the words of survivors here, and there’s also a video, off to the side, that’s necessary to listen to, and experience. It’s as hopeful as it is horrifying. One of the people speaking is Jeff Thomas, a significant artist who’s practice has been one that’s very much about legacy and cultural identity. He’s a Governor General award winning artist, but I remember speaking with him years ago about his work, and how his son was intrinsic to the process, and how he wasn’t just looking backwards but also considering the now, and the future, of the legacy of colonization in Canada. His curatorial project Where are the children? Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools is touched upon, while he speaks in the video, and you can find out more about that – and his other works about colonial history in Canada – online.

We Were Taught Differently is a quiet, solemn display: the ‘panels’ are divided up, and the didactic nature of the show isn’t off putting, but makes for clear and concise encapsulation of horror that might otherwise overwhelm. Timelines are offered, and specific residential schools are highlighted. It’s best to go alone, or go with someone that will also be amenable to the contemplative space. There’s a large amount of information that is likely unknown to many Canadians (and ignored, by many, it seems, still, in the public discourses around reconciliation). The literal ‘darkness’ of the didactics (grey and red and white on black, often, with grainy historic images – both photographic and sometimes of documents, as with the ‘panel’ intimidatingly labelled ‘discipline – is very much a ‘dark’ chronicle of a ‘dark’ chapter) serves, in an almost funerary manner. Installed in a way that allows you to move in and among the displays, and to read first person accounts, official accounts and other testimonials, you can become immersed in the environment. It’s a simple and direct installation, depending upon the power of the facts and the individual stories, more so than any artistic artifice: the presentation serves the concept, straightforward and lucidly. It’s almost odd, or feels a bit disrespectful, to speak of this as ‘art’, as its more important than that.

The descriptor for the travelling show (originating from The Muse – The Lake of the Woods Museum) is as follows: This exhibit examines the Indian residential school experience, most particularly in the two schools that were located in Kenora, Ontario – Cecilia Jeffrey and St. Mary’s. It also includes mention of all six schools in Treaty #3, as many local residents were sent to schools outside the immediate Kenora area. The exhibit is reflective of the residential school experience across Canada, nation-wide. Powerful images, text, video, archival material and personal recollections combine to tell the story of the residential school experience. Visitors will learn why residential schools were established, what life in the schools was like, the legacy of the schools, the recent settlement agreement, and Government and church apologies.

The primary objectives of this exhibit are to acknowledge this part of our history; to promote awareness about the residential schools and the long-term effect they had on the First Nations people; and to honour those whose lives have been touched by the schools. It is an exhibit for everyone.

Again, the reverberation of the echos of the ‘past’ are present in words in the show, and words we’re hearing now. Peter McKay’s praise of Oka is a repetition of the words from the segment on ‘discipline’, in a letter to the Indian Agent from a school principal in 1924: “…we will punish them whenever we think it necessary or useful to do so, the false reports spread broad cast against us of late will not prevent us from punishing any pupil that deserves punishment.” The wilfully ignored fact of the lack of clean drinking water on many reserves, today, is a reiteration of how “many of the schools were considered poorly built and maintained, and lacked proper heating, ventilation and drainage. There were staff shortages, overcrowding and poor sanitation. As a result there were often outbreaks…whooping cough, colds, influenza, grippe and eye infections. Measles, mumps and chicken pox were common. More serious diseases also occurred – typhoid fever, scarlet fever and tuberculosis.”

We Were Taught Differently: The Indian Residential School Experience is a haunting, harsh – yet perhaps hopeful, as a testament to survival – encapsulation of the history (and perhaps present) of Canada ignored in contemporary relations. I could end this with that pithy quote re: those unfamiliar with the past will repeat it, but a more dour one is necessary. If you dwell on the past, you lose an eye, Solzhenitsyn warned us, but forget the past, and you lose both. But perhaps its more appropriate to cite ‘Canadian’ references: listen to A Tribe Called Red’s Burn Your Village To The Ground (‘my people will have pain and degradation’) or Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song, from decades earlier, Uranium War (And me I watched it grow / Corporate greed and a lust for gold / And coal and oil and hey now uranium / Keep the Indians under your thumb / Pray like hell when your bad times come / Hey rip ’em up Strip ’em up / Get ’em with a gun)….

Go see this show, and keep this all in mind as politicians label the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters ‘criminals’, and advocate ‘order’……

This exhibition is on display until the middle of April, 2020, and should be required viewing for all Canadians. The Welland Historical Museum is located at 140 King Street, in Welland, and their hours are Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 AM to 4 PM.