Frank Tacan vividly remembers having his hair cut as a student at the residential school in Brandon, Man.
“I didn’t want to have my hair cut, so I hid,” says Tacan, now a respected elder from Sioux Valley. “When the teacher found me, she was mad that I had hid. She grabbed me by the hair, held me up, and as she swung with the scissors she caught my forehead. . . . I still have the scar.”
Tacan shared his story at the launch of the Brandon Indian Residential School Mobile Learning Centre, a travelling exhibition of historic photos that can be booked by communities, schools, museums and churches. Promoters bill it as a living memorial to the victims and survivors of the United Church-run former residential school, which was in operation from 1885 to 1972.
The opening event, a smudging ceremony, was held last October in the church hall at Central United in Brandon, Man. Church members partnered with local First Nations to create the exhibit, which received $3,500 in financial support from The United Church of Canada’s Justice and Reconciliation Fund.
“It’s often difficult for survivors to tell their stories, and we thought that this was a way — visually — to tell the history,” says Craig Miller, a member of the committee involved in creating the Mobile Learning Centre.
“We also saw it as a teachable moment, as we combine photos with information,” he adds. “You start to gain new insight as to why the schools were so problematic and why survivors hold so much pain. We can’t relive that experience, but we can seek to understand.”
The exhibit consists of 27 enlarged photos taken throughout the years at the residential school. At first glance, students look prim and proper, well dressed and eager to learn. But as you read the booklet provided that explains the story behind each picture, you start to see past the polished facade and into the true history.
The goal, says committee member Rev. Barb Jardine, is to encourage reconciliation as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people experience the learning centre together, rather than as two solitudes living side by side.
“Sometimes, as [non-Indigenous] Canadians, we treat residential schools as something that happened to Indigenous peoples that we’re aware of, but we don’t allow ourselves to get too close to it,” Jardine says. “If we’re going to truly walk as neighbours in Christ, then how can we say it’s not our problem? I think compassion is the starting place.”
Committee member Margaret Roscelli, who lives on Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, says she welcomed the opportunity to work with the United Church because she remembers what the denomination’s 1986 apology to First Nations meant to her many years ago.
“A lot of people don’t have that empathy for the things that we go through, and I find that’s true even now,” Roscelli says. “I’m hoping with this exhibit, it will raise some questions and people will actually see a face, the child, and the work that they’re doing to survive, and want to learn more about the history and develop some compassion.”
Whether that compassion will translate into healing for Brandon’s residential school survivors remains to be seen. As Tacan explained during the smudging ceremony, for former students, the trauma is “embedded in us. We cannot take it out. Some days it pops out, and it hurts like hell.”
Erin DeBooy is a journalist in Brandon, Man.