Flora Packo moved from one table to another getting as many brochures, posters, photocopies of photographs and other materials about Indian residential schools as she could.
That done, she and two friends looked at photographs in the “learning tent” at the first national event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission June 16 to 19.
Her eyes lingered at the display about MacKay-Dauphin residential school, in Manitoba. This school had been administered by the Anglican Church of Canada’s diocese of Brandon from 1957 to 1969. That was where her father and her mother were taken when they were eight years old.
When she was 13, Packo asked what most children ask their parents: “Where did you meet?” They both answered, “at a residential school.” She thought it was “just an ordinary school,” recalled Packo, now 23. It wasn’t until she was in high school that Packo learned about the tragic legacy of residential schools.
“It gave me some insight into why we struggle so much,” as a people, she said. “I used to think, ‘What’s the problem here?'”
Packo said she’s hoping that all Canadians “can turn the page” on the 150-year legacy of the residential schools. “It takes all of us, regardless of race and ethnicity. We need to work together. It’s our generation that needs to do this,” she said.
Packo was one of many children and relatives of former residential school students who flocked to the learning tent to get archival information provided by the very churches that once operated the federal government-funded schools. Staff from Anglican, Presbyterian, United and Roman Catholic. Library Archives Canada also attended the TRC event with records from the federal government.
The Anglican Church of Canada administered about three dozen residential schools and hostels between 1820 and 1969.
Laurel Parson, assistant archivist of the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod, brought photographs of residential schools from Manitoba and northwestern Ontario “so that people can look through them and if they see something they like or somebody they recognize, they can get photocopies of the pictures” for free. They were also given an option to request digital copies of the photographs.
Children of survivors often became excited to see where a parent or grandparent went to school, said Parson. Many returned with other relatives, to share their stories and memories.
Parson has found the experience “very moving.” She remembered one person, in particular, who told her, “My mom went to The Pas, the one that burned down.” When Parson said that she had some photos, “his whole face just lit right up.” The next day he came back with his sisters. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of photos. But they were like, ‘You gotta see this. I wonder which room was Mom’s,'” said Parson.
The man happened to leave his coffee and when Parson went after him to give it back, he shared his story with her. “He wasn’t a school survivor but was abused by a survivor who had been abused in a residential school,” said Parson. “He managed to work through a healing process and… he”s making films now to help other people recover….”
The Anglican church’s archives remain open to former students and their families who are searching for documents and photographs. It is also open, subject to privacy laws, to researchers.