It was an emotional morning at the opening ceremony for a new building at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Vancouver campus—Barney Williams Junior, a residential school survivor, recounted his painful and traumatic experiences as a young child who was forced to attend one of many exploitative church-administered institutions across Canada.
Many Canadians do not know about or understand the cultural ramifications that these schools have inflicted upon First Nations communities, largely due to the silence that has surrounded this topic for so long. But organizations like the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and records from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has helped people become more informed on Indigenous culture and history.
As of today (April 9), Williams and countless other individuals who have had to endure a similar past will be able to access the newly opened Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) located at 1985 Learners’ Walk. Its goal is to serve as a place for survivors, families, and communities to share their stories and engage in important conversation, and for members of the public to be educated on this dark past in Canadian history.
The IRSHDC is built on Musqueam territory, and many members of the Musqueam community attended the centre’s opening. Musqueam elder and adjunct professor of UBC’s First Nations and Endangered Languages Program Larry Grant made a speech; Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow was scheduled to attend the opening but was unable to.
The two-storey, 6,500-square-foot centre was designed by Indigenous architect Alfred Waugh and fully funded with $5.5 million in undesignated donations. Plenty of windows are featured throughout the building, which provide direct views of the lush greenery and water elements outside the centre.
“The centre will also be a place of dialogue with communities about the future,” said Linc Kesler, director of the UBC First Nations House of Learning and senior advisor to the president on aboriginal affairs, in a press statement. “The involvement and guidance of Indian residential school survivors and other Indigenous community members and organizations will be critical to the ongoing work of the centre and the university and to assuring that the work we do here is relevant to community concerns.”
The opening ceremony of the IRSHDC also saw UBC president Santa Ono deliver a long-awaited apology on behalf of the university’s involvement with the system that supported the operation of Indian residential schools in Canada.
“I begin today by acknowledging the history of the Indian residential schools, a system that caused harm for more than a century. On behalf of the university, I apologize to all of you who are survivors of the residential schools, to your families and communities, and to all Indigenous people for the role that this university played in perpetuating that system,” said Ono in a statement of apology. “We apologize for the actions and inaction of our predecessors, and renew our commitment to working with you for a more just and equitable future.”
“As we have worked towards the establishment of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, we now better recognize the harm that was done to Indigenous people by the residential schools and other policies and have come to regret how little our institution and others like it did to understand what was happening, speak against it, or to teach in response to it,” added Ono.
The IRSHDC is one of two UBC initiatives to acknowledge the relationship between Indigenous and Canadian relations, and to ensure that the difficult past of Indian residential schools is never forgotten. The other initiative, Reconciliation Pole by Haida Chief James Hart, was installed at UBC’s Vancouver campus last year.
Scroll through the photos below for a look at what took place at today’s opening ceremony and a peek inside the new building.