Ground breaks on Manitoba’s first residential school commemoration site

Construction is underway on the first residential school commemoration site in Manitoba, as Indigenous leaders gathered with government officials at a ground-breaking ceremony in River Heights Thursday.

The Assiniboia Residential School Commemoration & Gathering Place is being built on the former site of that school, located at 621 Academy Road near the corner of Centennial Street. More than 750 Indigenous students from across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario were sent to live at the school between 1958 and 1973.

The memorial project was initiated by the Assiniboia Residential School Legacy group, which began getting together in 2016 to talk about the trauma they faced as students at the school. The project was inspired by school survivor Ted Fontaine, who passed away in 2021.

“Elder Fontaine would visit this place often. He saw it as sacred land that should be preserved in a way that would bring survivors and community members together in reconciliation,” said ceremony emcee Susan Swan.

The Manitoba government is providing $25,000 to cover building costs. The memorial will feature a circle of metal markers engraved with the Indigenous names of the 83 communities students were from. Names of students will be engraved in paving stones throughout the site, and information panels with photos and graphics will provide further history and background.

“There’s only one thing to do, that’s to heal ourselves. That’s how we move forward,” said Elder Sheldon Cote as he blessed the site, “What happened, happened, we can’t change that. But we can heal ourselves from that.”

Representatives from all three levels of government were at the ceremony. The City of Winnipeg donated the land for the site, renaming the park after Fontaine last year.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Vice Chief David Monias said he was reminded of the hundreds of unmarked graves found near residential schools in recent years.

“People say, ‘you gotta get over it,’ right? It’s hard to get over it when these things still happen to our people,” said Monias. “Many of our people are in jail, many of our children are in care. It’s still happening, and we have to change that.”

He says the only way to do that is to educate people through sites like this.

“The only way we can undo what was done to our people is start to educate, and promote our culture, promote our languages and promote our ceremonies. Those are the things that really really matter to us.”

The commemorative site is slated to be ready for Canada’s second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, 2022.

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