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Did You See Us? Reunion, Remembrance, and Reclamation at an Urban Indian Residential School

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Did You See Us?

By: Survivors of the Assiniboia Indian Residential School and Andrew Woolford

Podcast Interview:

Andrew Woolford discusses his edited volume of recollections by survivors of the Assiniboia Indian Residential School, Did You See Us? Reunion, Remembrance, and Reclamation at an Urban Indian Residential School, with Morgan Sizeland Fontaine. Listen hereAndrew Woolford is professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Manitoba. Morgan Sizeland Fontaine is a consulting writer and editor to business, non-profit and educational initiatives.

This review was originally published in the Canadian Historical Review 103, no. 2 (June 2022), 326-328:

Did You See Us? Reunion, Remembrance, and Reclamation at an Urban Indian Residential School.

Survivors of the Assiniboia Indian Residential School. Andrew Woolford, ed.

Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2021.

Published in March 2021, Did You See Us? is, as its subtitle suggests, about reunion, remembrance, and reclamation by students who attended Assiniboia Indian Residential School in Winnipeg. A few months later, in May 2021, the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. This grim news was followed by similar revelations across Canada throughout the summer and into the autumn: 182 graves in Cranbrook; 160 at Penelakut Island; 751 near Cowessess; and more. This was the context in which I sat down to read survivor stories from Assiniboia. The message of each story is that even when we think we know the complete picture, there is still much more to learn about residential school history.

Operated by the Grey Nuns, Assiniboia opened in 1958 as a residential school, transitioning to a boarding hostel for Indigenous students attending local high schools in 1967 until it closed in 1973. The title, Did You See Us?, stems from the curiosity of former students. Despite attending an urban school in the middle of Winnipeg, many in the city, indeed in the neighbourhood, were ignorant of the school’s existence, though its purported objective was Indigenous integration. The book itself originated in the desire of former Assiniboia students to put on record their experiences of their school, which they feel was an outlier in the residential school system in many regards. First, it was a high school. Second, it was in the urban neighbourhood of River Heights, a rather well-to-do section of Winnipeg. Third, many former students feel that their experiences there were better than those faced in other residential schools, with kind treatment from staff, discussions of the problems of the settler colonial state, and the freedom to explore the world beyond the boundaries of the school. Together, these aspects made Assiniboia unique, and this is what former students wanted on record so that their own experiences would not be lost among other stories of residential school survivors.

Survivors organized a reunion for former students, staff, and neighbours of the urban school, during which everyone who wished could recount their experiences. These stories became this book. Survivors decided that their accounts should be arranged chronologically, reasoning that each era had its own unique experiences as Assiniboia transitioned from a high school to a boarding institution. Following these sections are an archive-based account of the school’s operation from Andrew Woolford, staff memories, accounts from neighbours of the school, contributions from the city of Winnipeg, and thoughts about the process of gathering stories at the school reunion. These various perspectives were included by the survivors guiding the project to provide as complete a picture as possible of the residential school experience at Assiniboia.

Some survivors remember their school days at Assiniboia fondly. Ted Fontaine, for example, recalls his days at Assiniboia in stark contrast to his “incarceration” at Fort Alexander Indian Residential School (16). There he had faced cruel treatment and abuse. At Assiniboia, there was a principal determined to treat students with dignity and a head cook who refused to scrimp, reasoning that growing bodies and minds need good, nutritious meals. He recounts how students thought they were so clever to sneak food off the kitchen racks, only to find years later that Sister Jean Ell left them to be stolen. Dorothy Crate described her first visit to Eaton’s and the ability to get work doing some light cleaning in the surrounding neighbourhood, which led to summer employment in Ontario that saw her through her education.

Nevertheless, Assiniboia was still a residential school. Many survivor accounts describe feelings of loneliness in being removed from their homes. David Montana Wesley, who came from Longlac, Ontario, recounts how when his parents were told by Indian Affairs that he would be bussed to a high school, they all assumed it would be in Geraldton, fifty kilometres away. Instead, the bus ended up in Winnipeg, some 800 kilometres from his home. Betty Ross, despite a relatively good experience at Assiniboia, is still asking, fifty years after graduating, “why?”: “Why residential schools? Why couldn’t they just leave us alone? ... Why did these two atrocious systems try to crucify me for who I was? ... I’m seventy-three years old. KēKwan-Ochiy? Why?!?” (81; emphasis in original).

The unique nature of the Assiniboia school alone makes it an interesting historical case study. But that is not why the survivors wanted their memories written down. As Hubert (Gilbert) Hart asserts, “that’s only my own personal experience. Nobody else has it” (72). This book reminds us that there is no one ultimate residential school experience. Residential school history is made up of the personal experiences of thousands of students, in addition to the experiences of their families, teachers and staff, government officials, and the communities in which these schools existed. Including accounts from so many different perspectives, while highlighting the accounts of survivors, reminds us of this fact and offers a new way to conceive of the history of residential schools in which all the connections to residential schools are shown.

For educators, I recommend pairing this book with other readings. The experiences of the survivors of Assiniboia are valid, but while they repeatedly ac- knowledge that the residential school system itself was problematic, their fond reminiscences could cause students being introduced to the topic for the first time to believe that residential schools were not that bad. The book would make an excellent reading for upper-year undergraduate or graduate seminars where these complexities could be discussed in full. On the whole, Did You See Us? broadens our understanding of the history of residential schools and the complicated memories that survivors have of their years in these institutions.

Michelle Desveaux, University of Saskatchewan


Andrew Woolford

About Andrew Woolford

Andrew Woolford is professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Manitoba, an emeritus member of the Royal Society of Canada College, and former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. He is author of ‘This Benevolent Experiment’: Indigenous Boarding Schools, Genocide and Redress in the United States and Canada (2015) and Between Justice and Certainty: Treaty-Making in British Columbia (2005), as well as co-author of The Politics of Restorative Justice (2019) and Informal Reckonings: Conflict Resolution in Mediation, Restorative Justice, and Reparations (2005). He is co-editor of Did You See Us? Reunion, Remembrance, and Reclamation at an Urban Indian Residential School (2021) Canada and Colonial Genocide (2017), The Idea of a Human Rights Museum (2015), and Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America (2014). He has worked on two community-based research projects with residential school Survivors: 1) Embodying Empathy, which will designed, built, and tested a virtual Indian Residential School that will serve as a site of knowledge mobilization and empathy formation; and 2) Remembering Assiniboia, which focuses on commemoration of the Assiniboia Residential School. He has most recently initiated a project on human and more-than-human relations within genocidal processes under the title “symbiogenetic destruction.” 

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.