Why this Portage La Prairie Residential School survivor is glad the building is now a national historic site

By | September 1, 2020

There was a time when Ernie Daniels yearned to see the Portage La Prairie Residential School in Manitoba torn down. But now he’s thankful it’s still standing.

Daniels is a Long Plain First Nation elder and a survivor of Canada’s residential school system, in which the federal government took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend church-run boarding schools designed to assimilate them by stripping them of their own languages and cultures. 

Abuse and neglect were rampant in the schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates 6,000 children died from disease, malnourishment, suicide, failed escape attempts and more. The last school closed in 1996.

The federal government on Tuesday officially recognized the residential school system as an event of national historic significance and designated two of the schools — Portage La Prairie and Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia — as national historic sites.

Daniels attended the Portage La Prairie school in 1956. He later became chief of the Long Plain First Nation, which acquired the building in 1981 and turned it into a place that serves the community. 

It’s now called the Rufus Prince building — named for a residential school survivor, chief and Second World War veteran — and is home to a museum, archives and the Dakota Ojibwe Police.

Daniels spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about what the new historic designation means to him. Here is part of their conversation. 

This residential school was a source of immense pain for you and for so many other Indigenous children. Why did you want to see it protected as a national historic site?

You cannot erase history by destroying a building.

When I acquired this land and the building in 1981 as a young chief at that time, I wanted to destroy it. I wanted to demolish it. But elders told me, “No, you’ve got to keep it for a testimony to the world at large to tell what happened to us.”

So I kept it as a building, because it is a solid building, a functional building and used by many groups over the years. So I wanted to keep it as a testament of our past, Canada’s policy on discrimination, assimilation, eradication, decimation of our people.

Why did you initially want to destroy it?

A lot of hurt and pain, sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse that was suffered by our young children.

And I wanted to keep it to, again, tell the world what happened to us. We turned a negative into a positive. It became the first home of Yellowquill College [Manitoba’s first First Nations-controlled post-secondary institution] in Manitoba. Yellowquill College still exists in Winnipeg.

We are resilient people. We are patient. We’ve been waiting for this acknowledgement and announcement for 40 years, and it’s finally happened. And we did it. We did it.– Ernie Daniels, Long Plain First Nation elder

You were six years old when you were sent to the school. What are your earliest memories, personal memories, of the experience?

It was very traumatic and I didn’t understand why. Because I was taken, I think, by the Indian agent [who] brought me here, me and my sister. And the first thing I remember is being dragged and put in the bathtub full of chlorine.

To this day, I still smell the chlorine when walk into this office here, into this building, because of the strong odour and memories.

They put DDT on our heads to get rid of lice and bugs, which we didn’t have. That was part of, I guess, assimilation of our people as a symbol.

The Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School opened in 1915 and closed in 1970. Today, it’s operated by the Long Plain First Nation and house a museum, archives and First Nations police force.

You are inside that building now. So over time, I mean, you’ve been going in there, as you say, for many years. Do new memories still arise? Do those feelings still come to the surface often?

Over the years, I’ve tried my best to take healing programs to deal with what happened to me.

I went to four residential schools over the years, and the memory of not having my parents, my siblings, my community, my grandparents, that hurt a lot.

I understand that parts of the building are associated by you and others with isolation and punishment.

There are certain parts of this building that I have a hard time talking about because they were isolation rooms or detention rooms. And they’re still here.

And we still have a corner of the building where we have the whips and belts that were used by the authorities. 

You say you wanted over time to keep the building as a monument to what happened, but also because it is of practical use to your community. But how many people did you have to deal with who didn’t want that, who would have really been more satisfied with seeing this thing destroyed?

I think a number of survivors would have loved that destroyed. But I also had a lot of survivors who told me we had to keep it going. You’ve got to keep afloat so that we can tell our history.

You’ve got to look at perspective here. Not only did we acquire the building, we also acquired about 50 acres of land. And you should see what’s happening now. We’ve got a brand new hotel. We’ve got a gaming centre. We’ve got office buildings. We’ve got 50 brand new homes.

So from the days when I acquired it, we had nothing here except the building. This building was in shambles. This building was vandalized. And the whole land was in the grass and weeds.

It’s taken … 40 years to develop it the way it is right now. It’s a beautiful place now.

How much satisfaction do you get from turning a place that’s filled with so much pain and tragedy into a place that is serving your community in such a positive way?

We can’t dwell in our misery. We need to move on as a nation, as a peoples. If you want to dwell in history and swell in misery, you’re not only not going anywhere. So we’ve put our efforts together as a community to move ahead and develop institutions, programs for capacity building and for awareness and education, and also contribution to greater society, which we are doing right now.

The federal government today also designated the residential school program as an event of national significance. Why is that so important to you? Because I guess it sounds, in some ways, like a small gesture that maybe should have been done before.

We are resilient people. We are patient. We’ve been waiting for this acknowledgement and announcement for 40 years, and it’s finally happened. And we did it. We did it.

The mere recognition or acknowledgement today is very significant. And this building, this museum, now is of national importance in that it’s a national museum now. It’s not a local museum any more. It’s national. It’s owned by the survivors across Canada and they will have access to this, because that’s their ownership.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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