A Peterborough resident who spent eight years at a residential school in northern Ontario shared her story at an Indigenous Peoples Awareness Month event in Cobourg Wednesday evening.
As a child, Dr. Shirley Williams attended St. Joseph Residential School in the town of Spanish.
“The way we were treated was not the best. When a person is not treated very well they don’t go to school or they don’t learn very well,” said Williams.
Residential schools operated in Canada for over 150 years. More than 150,000 children went through the system — and many never returned.
“It’s part of history, it’s not a very good education for aboriginal people so we want to tell our story, how we were treated,” said Williams.
The evening at Cobourg Collegiate Institute began with a screening of the documentary Silent Thunder: The Search for Truth and Reconciliation. The 2012 one-hour documentary by CHEX News outlined the ways in which these schools were underfunded, overcrowded and how thousands of students suffered physical and sexual abuse, loneliness and a longing to be with their families.
Wednesday’s event was one of four that the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board will host this month.
“It’s a month where we are reaching out to different groups including the community, to have discussions about Indigenous people in this country as we advance our goals of having every student in our board learn about indigenous history, culture and perspective,” said Jack Nigro, school board superintendent of education.
Organizers say the importance of these events is to learn about history first-hand from survivors.
“But it’s also an opportunity for young people to learn about this history and really find a sense of pride in being Indigenous and in being non-Indigenous and embracing reconciliation,” said Kevin Lamoureux, education lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
After being told she would never make it in the real world, Williams is now a professor at Trent University in Peterborough and says she hopes her story sheds some light on a dark chapter in Canadian history.