Inuvik—General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn had debated whether to display the portraits of Indian residential school students at an exhibit at the Northern National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, held here June 27 to July.
Hurn wasn’t sure what kind of reaction the portraits might elicit, but after some consultation, she decided to set them up on a black board as part of the collection that the Anglican Church of Canada—which ran 11 of 14 schools in the North—shared with students and the public.
Then, she said, an “astonishing” thing happened. “Someone came along and began to identify the (students) in the photographs,” who had already passed away, said Hurn. “There were four in one row—two had died by suicide, one by drowning, and one of cancer.”
That person, a former student himself, had written the information on tiny yellow Post-its and affixed them to the photographs. Hurn said she was going to type the information “out of respect for the people and the images,” but before she could do that, along came other students, who also began identifying individuals in the photographs.
The Post-its, said Hurn, “made people feel free to change the spelling of their names or other students’ names. People felt very engaged in the exhibit, in the material, in a way that I’ve never experienced before as an archivist.”
The fact that they took ownership of the material “was so satisfying,” said Hurn. It made the Archives staff’s effort of gathering the extensive collection, digitizing the materials, packing them, unpacking them, displaying them and packing them up again “incredibly worthwhile,” she said. They included photographs and materials from residential schools in Aklavik and Hay River, among others.
The Anglican exhibit also included hundreds of photographs, clippings and artifacts from the collection of the late Mossie Moorby, who spent eight years (1964 to 1972) as a nurse at Stringer Hall, an Anglican-run hostel in Inuvik.
Moorby’s daughter, Anne Campbell, not only shared items in the collection, but paid her way to be at the event so that she could meet the students whom her mother had photographed and written about in her letters home. Her mother had also painstakingly kept and labelled string art and drawings made by students when they spent time at the infirmary.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Campbell of her decision to be at the exhibit. “I will have amazing memories forever.” Before coming to Inuvik she had felt anxious, thinking that, “I may get here and no one will remember my mother,” she said. “It was the exact opposite.”
Not only did many of them remember Campbell’s mother, they had good memories of her, she said. One parent told her how her mother had saved her son’s life. “Her son had an ear infection, his ear drum burst and my mother had sent him to a hospital in Edmonton,” she said. Others said Mrs. Moorby had been a “mother figure” to them. Some of the students had been as young as five or six years old.
Others noted how she sounded like her mother. “When they say that, I know they knew my mother because everybody says I sound just like her,” said Campbell.
Campbell witnessed many “heartwarming” moments as she welcomed people to the exhibit and accommodated requests to photocopy photographs and materials. “A few pictures brought so much joy to so many people. I just saw the look on their faces,” she said. “One told me, ‘That’s my father. I don’t have a picture of him and he has passed on.’ ”
Another former student had tears in his eyes when he saw a photograph of his brothers and himself. “He didn’t have that (photograph),” Campbell said.
Like Campbell, Hurn said she was “blown away” by the reception that the collection received from students and their families. “Many saw, for the first time, photos of their grandparents. At one point, there were five generations of a family standing to view a photograph of a loved one,” she said.
As much as Campbell wanted to take part in other activities at the event, she said the exhibit was so popular that she managed to listen only to one session, in which some students talked about the hardships they had experienced at the schools. “They really break your heart. Some were really sad stories. They (happened) 40 to 50 years ago, but you could see the hurt and suffering that are still going on,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hurn and Tammy Wesley, part-time researcher at the Archives, also shared information about the Anglican schools collection at a Learning Panel organized by the TRC at the event.