Surrounded by the glass towers of downtown Montreal, a row of 13 metal display panels featuring a collection of black-and-white photographs populate a block on the tree-lined McGill College Avenue.

Every day, throngs of office workers, students and tourists stroll pass these images. Some briefly glance at the photographs, while others slowly study each panel with intensity.

The McCord Museum, in association with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, has mounted this outdoor exhibition titled Honouring Memory: Canada’s Residential Schools. Comprised of 24 large black-and-white archival photographs, the exhibit focuses on the Aboriginal children who experienced the residential school system in Canada. Funded by the Canadian government and managed by various churches, residential schools were set up to assimilate Aboriginals into European-Canadian culture.

Between the 1870s and the 1990s, 150,000 Aboriginal children went through this system. While most survived the experience, very few came away unscathed having suffered psychological, physical and sometimes even sexual abuse.


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In order to civilize these “savages” and wipe out any trace of their cultural identity, Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes and families and placed into residential schools, far away from their communities.

While some Aboriginal families tried to stay close to their children, Canadian authorities worked hard to sever familial bonds. One photograph taken in 1884 reveals a cluster of teepees outside the gates of the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School in Lebret, Saskatchewan, where parents would have lived hoping to catch a glimpse of their “stolen” offspring.

A quote by Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, in 1883, captures the prevalent attitude toward Aboriginals at the time. “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”

Many of these photographs are group shots revealing Aboriginal students, dressed in “Euro-Canadian” clothing and with short cropped hair, involved in a number of daily activities, like attending classes or going to church. These nameless children dressed in school uniforms engage in “white” games like cricket or football and play European musical instruments. All Aboriginal traditions, rituals, games and languages were banned in order to “Canadianize” them.

But not all the photos are group shots. Some are portraits thanks to the work of Alice Constance Dunn, a teacher at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, British Columbia. Her portraitures give her subjects names and personality.

One of Dunn’s photographs is of 10 young Native boys dressed up as “Indians” wearing paper headdresses and buckskins and carrying bows-and-arrows. It’s hard not to miss the irony of Indians playing Indians.

One of the photographs is of particular interest to the people in Eeyou Istchee. It is a shot taken in 1940 and features two Cree students intently studying a book they share. The two unidentified boys were students at St. Philip’s Indian Residential School in Fort George. Perhaps someone in Eeyou Istchee will recognize these young men.

One of the panels features a map of Canada revealing where the various residential schools were located and which religious denominations they were affiliated with – Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Mennonite, Presbyterian, United or non-confessional.

What is striking is that most of the residential schools were located in the four Western provinces and the territories, but there were a significant number in Ontario and northern Quebec.

The map shows the schools that many of the James Bay Cree would have attended, including St. Philip’s and St. Joseph’s in Fort George, La Tuque School, Bishop Horden Hall in Moose Factory and St. Anne’s in Fort Albany.

For more than 150 years, thousands of Aboriginal children – First Nations, Inuit and Métis – from across Canada were placed in residential schools. The objective was to strip them of their cultural identity, traditions and language. Fortunately, Canada’s attempt to eradicate Aboriginal cultures failed, but the legacy of that effort still scars many individuals and communities.

Honouring Memory exhibit is located on McGill College Avenue (between De Maisonneuve Boulevard and President Kennedy Avenue) and runs until October 20. You can also view the exhibit online at the McCord Museum website.