Language used on a St. Albert Founders' Walk sign describing the history of residential schools has one local teenager advocating for the sign to be changed, if not removed.
The sign, first erected in 2017 as part of the city's Healing Garden project, is located between the garden and the Children's Bridge along the Sturgeon River. It and bears three paragraphs of information about the two residential schools that operated in and close to, St. Albert: Youville and Poundmaker. The sign's first paragraph describes the impact of residential schools, while the two following paragraphs give a brief history of each school.
In an interview, Reilly Camp-Jensen, 16, said she's concerned that the sign uses "minimizing" language to describe the impact residential schools had on Indigenous children.
The sign's first paragraph reads: "St. Albert’s two residential schools were part of the national system that was set up to re-educate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. Students at the schools were to receive both academic training and vocational training (farming and housekeeping), however students and parents argued that farm work often took precedence over schoolwork. Many hands were needed to maintain and support such large institutions."
Camp-Jensen's initial reaction to reading this, she said, was that "it was minimizing but also defensive, and harmful to the Indigenous community and people who read the sign who are potentially uninformed.”
"It doesn’t mention cultural genocide, it doesn’t mention child labour, [and] it doesn’t mention abuse," she said. "People who come across that sign — whether they be tourists or St. Albert citizens — could definitely be misinformed."
Another point of concern for Camp-Jensen, she said, are the two sentences describing the education provided to Indigenous children.
"The wording of these two sentences suggests that it was justifiable to force Indigenous students to be responsible for housekeeping and farming. It does not mention that many children were coerced into unpaid labor."
The "Educational Record" section of the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released in 2015, states that the system of classroom and vocational learning, known as the "half-day system," was not mandated in any provincial curriculum across Canada.
"In fact, the half-day system existed in contradiction to the general policy that schools were to adopt and follow the curriculum of the province in which they were situated. No provincial education curriculum required primary school students to spend half the week on vocational training," the report states.
"The half-day system not only stood as a barrier to Aboriginal children's achieving academic success, but it seldom provided them with meaningful vocational training. It is clear from the record that rather than being given training that helped them develop employable skills, students spent their half-day doing repetitive chores that helped subsidize school operations."
In an email to The Gazette, city communications supervisor Nicole Lynch said that in 2021, the city "identified that some existing interpretive signage and other city communications related to the atrocities of residential schools should be considered for potential updates."
"As this sign was developed by the Healing Garden Committee, which included members who were residential school survivors, we want to be respectful of the work that has been done and therefore the city would not remove it without their guidance," Lynch said.
"However, once we have established a process to refine our interpretive signage, we intend to seek their input."
The Healing Garden Committee also included representatives from the Catholic Church, United Church, the general community, and city staff, according to the city's website.
Camp-Jensen said she was provided a similar response to her concerns after she contacted the city. Although she appreciated hearing more context for the sign, Camp-Jensen said she's still frustrated.
“I understand that creating language and creating these signs is difficult," she said. "It’s a very hard and political process and it can bring up a lot of really horrible feelings and experiences for Indigenous people, but I do wish that an updated sign would include language from trusted sources like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so the city wouldn’t have to create their own language and have a trial-and-error experience, because this was an error."
“Growing up in St. Albert, it’s such a beautiful city, and I’m very grateful to live here, but there’s still this dark undercurrent of history and I think we need to better acknowledge that,” Camp-Jensen said.