School survivor in N.W.T. pushes to have residential school buildings torn down

Three buildings were either turned into new schools or residences for college students.

UPDATE: The government of the Northwest Territories [GNWT] sent this response after the story was published.

“The GNWT uses a capital planning process when looking at what infrastructure to replace. It takes into consideration the following criteria: In order of importance, protection of people, protection of assets, protection of environment, financial investments, and program needs or requirements. The NWT Schools Capital Standards and Criteria outlines the criteria for major renovations and/or additions. The former residential school buildings in Fort Smith are examined with this same lens.

PWK High School and Joseph B. Tyrell Elementary School are significant infrastructure buildings in the community and both are in very good physical condition. There is no immediate requirement to replace these buildings. As we look at future infrastructure enhancements in the community however, we will be sure to take into account the request from the community alongside the criteria the GWNT uses.

Breynat Hall is also located in Fort Smith. The successful transformation of Aurora College to a polytechnic university requires our campuses to meet the needs of our future students, creating a safe environment in which they can thrive. The Polytechnic University Facilities Master Plan (FMP) that was released in September 2023 identifies proposed enhancements for the Thebacha campus in Fort Smith, which includes the disposal of Breynat Hall, a former residential school hostel that contains 52 beds for single students. New single student housing should be built to replace this and has been identified as a priority.

In Budget 2023, the GNWT has asked Canada for $7.595 million that if received would go towards planning studies that would allow for future work on student housing for the polytechnic university, including Breynat Hall.”

The small Métis, Dene and Cree community of Fort Smith in the southern part of the Northwest Territories is home to about 2,200 residents.

It’s also a hub for the historical traumas that took place in schools and college residence buildings.

Paul Bouchie is a residential school survivor who attended Breynat Hall and Grandin College.

“Breynat Hall. That’s where a lot of my scars come from,” said Bouchie, who is now a cultural educator at P.W. Kaeser High School, more commonly called PWK. “And every day I have to see that building, and I’d like to see it gone just because I think so many students are trapped and need to be released.

“A lot of things happened there and it’s bothered a lot of people in the North.”

Frieda Martselos, the MLA for the area, spoke in the territory’s legislature on March 5 about the need for the buildings to be replaced.

“Fort Smith is also home to three buildings with a residential school legacy and all of them are still active in use today,” she said. “To be perfectly clear, all of these structures are either former residential schools or former federal Indian day schools, and they’re the only remaining of such structures left standing in the N.W.T.”

Martselos cited a capital needs assessment summary of the schools that was created in 2003 and tabled in 2021. She noted the aging and physical condition of the buildings as the reason to replace them.

“According to that document, JBT (Joseph Burr Tyrell Elementary school) was scheduled to be replaced in 2018 and PWK was scheduled to be replaced in 2020, but neither has happened despite the age and history of both schools. I do not agree with that. So I am hoping that our government takes notice and will work with Fort Smith to replace and rebuild new schools for our community.”

school survivor
‘I’d like to see it gone just because I think so many students are trapped and need to be released,’ says Bouchie seen here in 2021. Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell elementary opened 65 years ago as a federal Indian Day School. It operated from 1959 to 1969 with students from nearby communities. After it closed as a school, it was purchased by the territorial government.

Grandin College was built in 1962 and was operated by the Catholic Church as a residential school until 1971. The territory bought it and turned it into a high school.

Breynat Hall is currently a residence for Aurora College.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, one student, Emma Elton, died there in 1960.

“A lot of us went there, a lot of loneliness, no love and no caring,” said Bouchie. “There was no tenderness for us – we were just numbers to the government – and I feel the place should be torn down and that legacy should be gone by now, but it’s an eyesore for a lot of us.”

APTN News spoke with Souhail Soujah, superintendent of the South Slave Divisional Educational Council, who said his organization is in full support of replacing the schools.

“Building a school is an expensive process and also a long process in terms of planning and implementation,” said Soujah. “Sometimes, the hesitancy from governments in any part of the country to build new schools even when it’s absolutely necessary, however we feel that this is absolutely necessary for a number of reasons.

“Not only the viability of the building, but number one this is why it is needs to be done is the legacy of residential school trauma that survivors suffer from the building being in place.”

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