VANCOUVER — Cindy Tom-Lindley says her grandmother had all her children taken to residential schools and the family had no choice but to comply with the federal government policy designed to assimilate aboriginal people.
Generations of her family would experience the abusive system with Tom-Lindley herself spending three intermittent years at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“The pain and the suffering that our people have endured is very real,” she said.
The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre being developed at the University of British Columbia will house stories from survivors like Tom-Lindley and her family to ensure their experiences aren’t forgotten.
The centre acts as a west coast branch for the national archive of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission based at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Construction for the centre, which will be located in the middle of the University of B.C.’s Point Grey campus, begins Monday.
Audio and visual records collected by the commission will be presented in interactive displays so that visitors to the centre can explore the materials and draw their own conclusions about the history, said Linc Kesler, director of the university’s First Nations House of Learning.
Kesler said educating Canadians is one of the goals of the centre in order to improve relationships between aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people.
“We want this to be a place… where people can say ok, this is the history, we understand this, this is what brought us to this point, our society is now in this state because these things happened and evolved this way, and we now have some choices about what we want to see next,” he said.
For communities traumatized across generations in the 150 years the residential school system operated, Kesler said the centre also provides the opportunity for young aboriginal people to learn about the history and understand how their lives may be affected by that trauma.
“It’s not just understanding what happened to a grandparent, it’s understanding what happened to you and what you can do about it,” Kesler said.
Tom-Lindley, a member of the Upper Nicola Band of the Okanagan Nation, said she never learned the languages of her ancestors.
Although her mother spoke three indigenous languages, after being forced into residential school, she only taught her children English.
Tom-Lindley, now a grandmother herself, said her grandchildren are taking classes to learn their native languages but more must be done to protect and resurrect the culture.
She said she hopes the centre can serve as a place to share traditions.
As the executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, Tom-Lindley said the opening of the centre will be emotional, especially for those who will be reminded of past abuse.
While the history is painful to relive for many people, Tom-Lindley said there is a value in having survivors make their experience known.
“The more that we tell the story, the more healing that takes place,” she said.
—Follow @Givetash on Twitter
Linda Givetash, The Canadian Press
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