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Filmmaker exposes residential school story

Crumbling buildings and unmarked gravesites north of Okotoks mark a piece of Foothills area history many residents have no idea exists.

Crumbling buildings and unmarked gravesites north of Okotoks mark a piece of Foothills area history many residents have no idea exists.

Calgary artist Laurie Sommerville shared that history when telling Okotoks residents about Dunbow Industrial School, also known as St. Joseph’s Industrial School, during a presentation at the Lineham House Galleries June 15.

“It’s a piece of Canadian history that a lot of people did not want to talk about, but I knew this story needed to be told,” she said. “It’s an important part of history that can’t be ignored.”

Four years ago, Sommerville created the 10-minute documentary Little Moccasins, which shares information about the school and shows Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School elementary students honouring children who died at the school by releasing butterflies and stating their names.

Sommerville said staff in the industrial school taught 430 Blackfoot children skills in blacksmithing, farming, sewing and cooking, as well as some academics, from 1883 until 1922.

It’s estimated there were 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children in the Canadian residential school system and that around 6,000 died while in the schools.

Somerville collected her facts from the Calgary Public Library and Glenbow Museum, and gleaned many details about the conditions of the facility and how the children were treated from a ledger and letters written from administration to the government.

According to documentation, the children’s native clothing was replaced with western clothing and a Christian name and number was assigned to each child, Sommerville said.

The children were made to sit at desks to learn to read and write, she said.

“It was hard for them to sit still,” she said. “To sit in a desk was foreign to them.”

Sommerville also learned that many children weren’t given adequate medicine to treat illnesses like influenza and tuberculosis, that they were beaten for speaking their native tongue and some were held in solitary in a barn where some scratched dates and pictures on boards are still visible today.

Children attempted to run away, but some died in the harsh elements, explained Sommerville. Parents who tried to retrieve their children from the school were jailed at an RCMP post located at the site, she said.

Sommerville said many children were malnourished. When given unfamiliar foods like oatmeal they would often vomit. This resulted in some trying to catch gophers to eat because they were so hungry, she said.

Before the government abolished all industrial schools in Canada in 1923, it’s estimated that approximately 73 children died at Dunbow Industrial School.

Sommerville said the school was all but forgotten until the Highwood River flooded in 1996, eroding the riverbanks and unearthing the remains of children. The remains were noted to have been seen floating near the site by a swimmer.

“If it wasn’t for the river flooding and the erosion we may not have known their story,” she said.

In 2001, a group of elders buried the remains of 34 children at a gravesite near the school and two monuments were erected.

“By developing a broad awareness of this hidden part of Canadian history, we start on the road to working out appropriate solutions to our complex indigenous people’s needs and rights,” she said.

Cheryl Taylor, co-proprietor of the Lineham House Galleries, invited fellow artist and friend Sommerville to talk about this tragedy with hopes of educating more people about the industrial school.

“We felt that the public would be as interested in Little Moccasins as much as we have been,” she said. “The subject matter of residential schools is one of huge interest at the moment. People are wanting to know more information about what happened to these children. It’s of particular interest in this Canada-wide celebration of our 150th but also as we reevaluate our path going forward as a country.”

Taylor was surprised to learn that such a big piece of Canadian history was so close to home.

“It was a shock to me to learn that this was right outside our borders,” she said. “It’s close to home on a number of levels for sure. We had some people in the audience that this touched very personally because of their own ancestral backgrounds. It was difficult subject matter for sure.”

Spectator Shawna Koski said her grandma Pauline Dempsey was at the St. Mary’s Residential School in the Cardston area from ages five to 16, but Koski had no idea there had been a school close to Okotoks.

“Just knowing it was so close was very surprising to me,” she said.

Koski said she knows little about her grandmother’s experience at St. Mary’s, except for the few stories she shared.

“She does keep it pretty quiet and when she talks about it she likes to talk about funny things that would happen during the time that was there, but sometimes she says a sad memory,” she said.

Among them was watching her family’s farm house from the school windows.

“Her family lived very close so she could see her house in the distance and every time her dad went to work,” she said. “She always wanted to run away.”

Koski said she’s glad more people are becoming educated about residential schools in Canada.

“It is really important for the general public to realize that this sort of thing happened,” she said.