The Hay River Reserve now has a unique way to remember the children who once went to residential school there many years ago.
This past summer, K’atlodeeche First Nation (KFN) erected a monument to honour the students at St. Peter’s School, an Anglican residential school which had its origins in the mid-1890s and closed in 1937. The monument is on the grounds where the school once stood.
“It’s just to remember those children that suffered, and hope that something like that never happens again to the aboriginal people in the area,” said Chief Roy Fabian, who added some children died while at the school and are buried in the nearby cemetery.
The wooden monument features a bell that was once part of the residential school.
“If you take a look at the picture of the residential school, there was a bell on top of it,” Fabian noted. “So when they took the building apart, they took that bell and put it on the church.”
However, St. Peter’s Church was virtually destroyed by flooding in 2008 and has yet to be rebuilt.
Fabian said it was his idea to use the bell on the monument.
The chief said anyone can ring that bell when visiting the monument, which is located in the reserve’s Old Village.
Kim Beaulieu, who was hired by KFN to oversee the project, believes visiting the monument and ringing the bell will have various meanings.
“I think that meaning would be different for each person that chose to ring it,” she said.
For survivors of residential schools, hearing the sound of the bell could dredge up old hurts and they may choose not to ring it, she said.
“But I also think that, if families come and they had a family member that was in that school who’s no longer here, it would almost be a way of making that connection, honouring their spirit, I think,” she said.
Beaulieu said ringing the bell might also be like a farewell.
There are believed to be just two former students of St. Peter’s School still living.
The monument was built with $50,000 in funding from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is supporting the construction of such memorials across Canada.
“It allows people to have a voice,” Beaulieu said.
Work began in April on the monument and most of it was completed by July.
Beaulieu, who is working in a term position as KFN’s victim service co-ordinator, said there are some additions to be made to the monument, such as a picture of St. Peter’s School, a brief history on a plaque, and likely a message to visitors from KFN’s chief and councillors.
An official opening is expected to take place next spring.
Fabian had hoped to list the names of students on the monument, but ran into concerns about confidentiality, not to mention actually finding accurate records.
“What we wanted to do was we wanted to try to identify the students that were in there, but because of legal issues we couldn’t,” he said.
It is estimated that at least 621 students attended the school, including those from other parts of the NWT and what is now Nunavut.
Many of the current residents of the Hay River Reserve may have had relatives who attended the school.
Fabian said his father was at the school, before running away after two days, and the chief’s maternal grandmother from the Sahtu was also sent to the school.
“For us, it’s really sad that something like that took place on our traditional land, but we don’t want to forget the people that were there,” he said.
The chief said the monument is about remembering, but also about looking ahead.
“We want to try to create a better future where things like that will never happen again,” he said. “That’s what that’s all about.
— Paul Bickford