‘It’s not some facade’: Four years after rocky opening, IRSHDC makes strides to serve residential school, intergenerational survivors

After a rocky opening four years ago, the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) is fully operational, according to staff and partners.

The IRSHDC opened in April 2018 to provide space for residential school and intergenerational — those whose parents or grandparents went to residential schools — survivors and the public to access archival materials related to the residential school system through interactive technology. But, in the immediate months following the opening, the centre was short-staffed, its record systems incomplete and its building effectively empty.

“I’m quite frustrated about the fact that once I got into the role and started to get fully acquainted, I discovered that we [were] far from ready to open,” Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the academic director of the IRSHDC and member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, told The Ubyssey five months after the centre opened. “[When] I came in July [2018] … we had no systems in place.”

But four years later, things have changed, Turpel-Lafond said in a May 2022 interview with The Ubyssey.

The centre now has records related to residential schools in BC and across Canada, a new Indigenous Advisory Committee (IAC) and hosts UBC classes and Indigenous peoples from around the province.

There is also more interactive technology for visitors to use when accessing archival materials. A 2018 visit by The Ubyssey to the IRSHDC found only two iPads and four computers — now there are more computers and iPads and four touchscreen TV monitors available for use.

“I feel quite positive about how that work has advanced,” Turpel-Lafond said. “I feel like the centre is much more in service to Indigenous peoples and communities.”

Collaboration is key — to an extent

According to Turpel-Lafond, the IRSHDC’s engagement with groups internal and external to UBC has increased a “thousandfold” since 2018 — something she credits for the centre’s progress.

In particular, she said the creation of the IAC, a 15-member committee including residential school survivors and Indigenous students, has been helpful.

“The lights just went on when the Indigenous Advisory Committee came together,” she said.

The committee — which has been active for 18 months — can’t direct the centre’s programming and operations, but can advise and provide feedback.

UBC Chancellor Steven Point, who is a member of the Skowkale First Nation, chairs the committee. He said it was an honour to be associated with the IRSHDC and “its unique mission” in a statement to The Ubyssey.

“The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre carries on the mission of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not only through informing everyone about the history of residential schools but also in continuing to carry out the critical mission of reconciliation through dialogue and shared understanding,” he wrote.

Along with the formation of the IAC, Turpel-Lafond said internal changes within UBC, notably the launch of the Indigenous Strategic Plan, campus-wide commitments to anti-racism and the support of the Provost’s Office have been beneficial.

In a statement sent to The Ubyssey, UBC Vancouver Provost and VP Academic pro tem Dr. Gage Averill said his office is happy with the progress the centre has made over the past few years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“UBC recognizes the importance of having Indigenous voices and people with lived experience lead this critical work,” he added.

Even with the support from UBC, Turpel-Lafond said the IRSHDC appreciates its independence, noting she no longer wants it to be designated as a UBC-affiliated institute or centre as she did in 2018.

“The goal is to give [the IRSHDC] that independence or autonomy, and that's important so it can disrupt some of the more colonial approaches to some of these disciplines.”

A place for survivors to ‘learn more about themselves’

Walking through the IRSHDC, the centre’s commitment to supporting residential school and intergenerational survivors is clear.

In the centre’s exhibition space — the main area where visitors can use computers and other interactive technology — three desks with a computer and a tissue box each are separated from the rest of the room by banners, creating a private space to view sensitive documents. And, outside of the room, is a small sitting area with a couch and bookshelf for those who need a moment to pause.

There is also a separate Elder’s Lounge located upstairs which includes an individual research kiosk, table and chairs, a couch with blankets and views of the garden outside.

Kristin Kozar, who is a member of the Coast Salish community and the IRSHDC’s acting engagement lead, said the sitting area and other features of the centre were created based on recommendations from the Residential School Survivor Society.

As an intergenerational survivor herself, Kozar said she feels welcomed working at the centre.

“There is a part of me that is also invested more because of my family’s history. So the fact that I consider this a safe place to work and the work that we actually do has meaning is very much a unicorn,” she said.

For Kozar, the centre serves primarily as a knowledge base for survivors.

“[This is] a space that Indigenous individuals — whether a survivor, intergenerational survivor — can come to not only get to know the historical background of certain schools … but so they can also learn more about themselves.”

Turpel-Lafond said the IRSHDC should serve as an “ally” for justice for survivors, particularly following last year's discovery of unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops Indian Residential Schools and other former schools across Canada.

“We've seen in the last year demand on the centre to be present and to assist and to take serious credibility in terms of accuracy … for justice and to address an issue, which I think is properly termed a genocide,” she said.

The exhibition space (to the left) is where visitors can access the centre's archival materials via interactive technology.
The exhibition space (to the left) is where visitors can access the centre's archival materials via interactive technology. Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

‘I'm excited about what's going to happen’

Despite the progress the IRSHDC has made over the past four years, Turpel-Lafond believes there is more to be done.

In particular, she wants the IRSHDC to create an affiliated and visiting scholars program where experts on different topics like endangered languages or Indigenous sport are invited to work with the centre on its content.

Turpel-Lafond is also excited to see what the centre’s new academic director does as her term ends on June 30.

“I don’t know everything,” she said. “You’ve got to keep refreshing it and you can’t just get comfortable doing one thing … so I’m excited about what’s going to happen.”

In his statement, Averill said the Provost’s Office has launched the search process for both an interim and permanent academic director under the leadership of Dr. Eduardo Jovel, the interim director of the First Nations House of Learning.

Kozar said she and her team are working on several projects, including a community naming project to gather Indigenous communities’ preferred names for the IRSHDC website and an Indigenous ethics repository with UBC researchers.

She said these and other projects from the centre are necessary for truth and reconciliation.

“The residential school effects are still very real. And so we need to know this before Canada can get to reconciliation,” Kozar said.

“That’s why the centre is imperative … because we are actually doing that, it’s not some facade.”