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Introducing “How I Survived”

Students at Lapointe Hall (Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę_Fort Simpson) playing pool, 1967. Credit_ NWT Archives_Sacred Heart Parish (Fort Simpson) fonds_N-1992-255_ 0132

You may have noticed a new page on our website devoted to a research project called, “How I Survived”: Recreation at Northern Residential Schools. Guided by a committee of former students and intergenerational survivors, the NWT Recreation and Parks Association (NWTRPA) and University of Alberta are collaborating to develop a travelling exhibit and website about the role and experiences of recreation at residential schools, hostels, and federal day schools (also known as Indian day schools) in the Northwest Territories.

We want to take this opportunity to tell you a bit more about this project and introduce you to the project team.

How did this project originate?

Since the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in 2015, the NWTRPA has been actively seeking to better understand the interlaced histories of recreation and colonialism, and to advance reconciliation in the recreation sector by working in the spirit of the TRC and its 94 Calls to Action.

Inspired by the maxim “truth before reconciliation,” the NWTRPA invited historian Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser (Gwichyà Gwich’in) to deliver a keynote presentation about recreation at Mackenzie Delta residential schools and hostels at our annual conference in Inuvik in 2017. While delegates found the subject matter difficult, they also appreciated the opportunity to learn more about an important part of northern, and indeed Canadian, history. During the facilitated discussion that followed Crystal’s presentation, some delegates shared their experiences of residential schools and hostels, whether as former students or as intergenerational survivors. The NWTRPA staff and board members were struck by the power of this truth-telling and the gaps in knowledge that exist about residential schooling, including among those directly impacted by the residential school system.

After the conference, the NWTRPA felt that we could play a part in facilitating conversations about the history of residential schooling in the North, conversations that are important to the wellbeing of Indigenous communities, but which might also move us toward more just relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. We reached out to Crystal to collaborate on this project because of her expertise on the subject of northern residential schools, but also because she is Gwichyà Gwich’in, from the NWT, and has been affected by the intergenerational consequences of residential schooling policies. From there, we assembled a small committee of former students and intergenerational survivors to guide the project.

What will this project accomplish?

The content for the exhibit and website will mostly come from interviews with residential school, hostel, and day school Indigenous survivors, though we have also been reviewing historical documents including photographs and reports from schools and hostels across the territory. The interviews and historical research will help us to understand how recreation was a part of the residential school, hostel, and day school experience, as well as the significance of recreation for residential school, hostel, and day school students. (Note: We understand recreation to include a variety of creative, physical, social, and intellectual activities including, but not limited to, music, the arts, sports, games, crafts, reading, and Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.)

This project will provide former students of residential schools, hostels, and day schools with an opportunity to share their stories of survival and spirit with the public. Drawing on these stories, the exhibit and website will celebrate the strength and resilience of survivors. We hope this project will provide a new way of understanding the history and legacy of residential schooling in the North and inspire forward-looking dialogue.

Our objectives are:

  • to share the stories of residential school, hostel, and day school survivors;

  • to provide context for their experiences through related archival research; and

  • to develop materials and resources that reflect and respect their diverse experiences of recreation while at residential school, hostels, and day schools.

Who is involved with this project?

“How I Survived” is a project initiated by the NWT Recreation and Parks Association (NWTRPA) and Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser (Gwichyà Gwich’in), an assistant professor in the Department of History, Classics, & Religious Studies and the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. The project is being guided by an advisory committee that includes: former Grollier Hall student and CBC journalist Paul Andrew (Shúhtaot’ı̨nę); elite cross-country skier and former residential school student survivor Dr. Sharon Anne Firth (Teetł’it Gwich’in); long-time teacher Lorna Storr from Aklavik; and NWTRPA Board member Kyla LeSage (Vuntut Gwitchin and Anishinaabeg). The project manager is historian Dr. Jessica Dunkin (settler Canadian).

What is happening with the project right now?

Progress on the project has been slow to date because in order to conduct interviews, we require ethics approval from the University of Alberta and a research licence from the Aurora Research Institute. We have received ethics approval from the University of Alberta and are in the final stages of securing a research licence. We hope to begin interviews later this winter. Should we be able to move ahead with interviews, they will be conducted respecting community protocols surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and following current public health guidelines.

If you have questions about the project, please contact the project manager, Jess Dunkin, at or 867-669-8375.

If you are a survivor or intergenerational survivor of a residential school, hostel, or day school and are having a difficult time, you may find this wellness information of value:

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