Demolishing Barriers: Canada’s Native Community Actively Un-Making Racist Architecture, by Sarah Delnour

September 14, 2021
ARCH 251
Professor Annmarie Adams

Figure 1: Polson, Erica. Paul Dixon and his Newly Acquired Sledgehammer, in Steve Bonspiel, “La Tuque Residential School Razed- Demolition Is Closure for Hundreds of Abducted Cree Children Held at the School.” The Nation Archives 13, no. 7 (February 2006): 5.

The time I have spent as a student following Quebec’s curriculum has left me with very limited awareness of the Indian Residential School System. Over the years, I have gathered snippets of the challenges faced by Canada’s Indigenous community, while I collected heaps of facts dealing with wars that have taken place thousands of kilometres away. The genocides that have occurred on this land, in this country we so proudly call our own, have conveniently been disregarded. We tend to point fingers at our neighbours, failing to recall our own accounts of discrimination. The construction of deliberately racist architecture, such as residential schools, is a prime example of Canada’s much overlooked colonial ideals. In accounts such as the above photograph, individuals of the Native community illustrate the intergenerational trauma rooted in racist architecture and confirm that the power of architecture can extend far beyond its materiality.

The above image captures a Cree Native, Paul Dixon, standing atop a mound of snow with a sledgehammer in hand in front of the derelict La Tuque Residential School in La Tuque, Quebec. It was featured in an article by Steve Bonspiel in the Native magazine, The Nation Archives, in the article “La Tuque Residential School Razed-Demolition is Closure for Hundreds of Abducted Cree Children Held at the School” in February of 2006, a few weeks before the demolition of the school. This image stood out to me at first glance, as it is not the typical residential school picture I was shown in lectures. For once, it is not a classroom of Indigenous children dressed in European garments with a Christian headmaster in front; it is a clear depiction of Canada’s Indigenous community taking a stand against the oppression they have faced throughout decades of colonial education in residential schools.

Behind Dixon, in the background of the image, stands the remains of what once was La Tuque Residential School, a place “where souls go to die”, as described by Dixon in Bonspiel’s article.1 The state of the school in the winter of 2006, at the moment this photograph was taken, is a rather sorry one. The windowpanes and casings have been destroyed in a seemingly violent manner, leaving chipped paint and the exposed wall interior. The concrete lining the top of the building is stained and looks poorly maintained. Through the decrepit windows, the interior rooms look barren, with the exception of graffiti covering the walls. Vandalism, the deliberate wrecking of property, depicts a very strong political message and is often rooted in anger. From the angle of the photograph, the vandalism covering the majority of the walls is mostly indecipherable, however, in the second window from the right of the bottom row, one can perceive what appears to be the top portion of a cross. This symbol of Christianity represented in the vandalism, presumably executed by individuals outraged by the existence of this school, reflects the violence and rage towards Christianity within the Cree community. The Aboriginal children who were abducted and forced into La Tuque Residential School were abused—either emotionally, physically, or sexually—when they spoke their mother tongue or tried to practice their religion.2 Non-Indigenous educators forced Christianity on these children as a way of purifying the children and “killing the Indian in the child.”3 The Christian religion holds painful memories of the time spent in this space, which could explain why the vandals painted it on the school walls as a form of angry protest.4 Many residential school survivors reported having to clean the floors and walls of the school with ridiculously small items, such as a toothbrush, for countless hours.5 The act of vandalizing this school, a space that once had to be treated with the utmost respect despite the torture it permitted within its walls, is powerful and liberating. Through these destructive means, residential school survivors were finally able to express the trauma they harboured for decades.

The desolate state of the school indicates neglect, but most importantly, it reflects the carelessness attributed to the Cree community. Once the school closed its doors in 1978, the government found no use for the building and let it deteriorate until it was declared surplus and rendered fit for demolition.6 Considering the hefty costs associated with designing and building a school, the government’s unwillingness to preserve this large construction despite its potential usability shows a strong indifference toward Native peoples. Moreover, the First Nations people who attended the school as children had no interest in returning to a place that stripped them from their identity. The fact that no one was interested in keeping this building suggests that it was not a meaningful space for anyone. Seeing as this picture was taken nearly 30 years after the closure of La Tuque Residential School, the government had loads of time to repurpose this space into a new project, such as a healing centre for communities that have been affected by the cultural genocide. Unfortunately, the more obvious choice was to let the site perish.

A banner with the inscription “ANOTHER STEP TO THE EAST” hangs on the school’s façade. Although I have no evidence of who is responsible for this signage, nor do I know its exact significance, one might speculate it was placed by an individual of the Aboriginal community. La Tuque Residential School was mostly frequented by Cree people, a First Nation community living in Eastern Canada. The dialect of Cree spoken by these people is even known as East Cree.7 This could therefore be a sign placed by the Cree suggesting they are one step closer to reclaiming the land that was taken from them, as they originate from the East. It is also worth noting that Christopher Columbus, the man who “discovered” the Americas, thought he had reached the East following his arrival on this continent.8 In this context, this could be a satirical statement affirming that this land belongs to the Cree First Nation and they now own it, much like Columbus did upon entering the Americas. This banner could also imply the First Nations taking a metaphorical step away from the West and the white man’s world. This declaration can be seen as a sign of protest; a manifestation showing that Indigenous peoples have persisted despite the Western world’s attempts at assimilating them and turning their traditional lifestyle into European ideals.

Dixon, the man in the foreground of the photograph, is positioned in a power stance. His feet are spread wide, one slightly higher than the other, with his back straight. He is occupying a large volume in space, conveying strength and power. He exudes confidence standing atop a mound of snow, as though illustrating the challenges Canada’s Indigenous population has overcome to reach his current position of assertiveness and control. Dixon’s facial expression is also quite meaningful: the satisfied smirk plastered on his face insinuates both revenge and victory at once. The satisfaction in destroying this once traumatizing place and ridding it to nothing is visible through his grin. The picture itself is evidence that this moment was of utmost importance in the First Nation community- and in Dixon’s life – as he purposely climbed the snow dune and posed for a picture in commemoration of this occasion. Feeling the need to record the building in its state of deterioration is a gesture that reveals the emotional damage associated with this place, as well as a record of hope and healing for Indigenous peoples.

Dixon has himself attended La Tuque Residential School. He claims to have spent the little money he had on the sledgehammer he is holding and eagerly made his way to what was left of this painful space on February 1st, 2006 when he was told it would be torn down.9 The choice of a sledgehammer is worth noting: this demolition tool requires one to exert a significant amount of physical force to destroy masonry walls through the contact of the tool’s heavy metal head against the brick wall. With every swing, every hit, and every crack he formed in the brickwork, Dixon eradicated the spaces that once took away his sense of self. This gesture is incredibly powerful and demonstrates the way emotional trauma resulting from years of inferior treatment triggers anger and makes people crave the demolition of their oppressor to feel a sense of relief. It also implies that the materiality of these walls objectified a racist entity until the building’s demolition.

This photograph undoubtedly reveals that architecture is never exclusively a construction. Buildings can be hospitable and warm, but they can also conceal cultural assimilation and historical eradication behind their structural mask. Any architecture goes through a lengthy design process: buildings are scrupulously thought-out, meticulously drawn, and designed with a purpose in mind. A school, a space for children, should be even more thoughtfully constructed. It is a system where young minds are intended to learn, grow, and recognize their place in society. When such a structure, one which has the potential for so much good, is instead used for isolation and shaming youth, its walls take on a whole new significance. Sarah De Leeuw’s dissertation on creativity and colonialism in residential schools makes it obvious that the architecture of buildings that bear strictly racist roots holds a “symbolic power that somehow extends beyond the materiality of the institution.”10 In De Leeuw’s claims, residential school survivors have mentioned that: “the school building itself, its surfaces, layout, and concrete presence, is an integral part of their memories about colonial education.”11

It was said that over 200 people from Oujé-Bougoumou, Mistissini, Nemaska and Dixon’s hometown of Waswanipi gathered on the grounds of their old school to aid in its demolition or to sit and watch it collapse.12 Although this destruction is not a way of entirely eliminating the agony and desolation that was inflicted on the Indigenous community through colonial education, it is a physical experience that allows for a kind of release and closure; the labour required to deconstruct a purely racist institute births freedom from the pain that resulted from years racism. It is obvious that the trauma caused by such institutions was intergenerational, meaning even those who did not physically attend a residential school felt its repercussions. There is a lot to be said about the destruction of architecture – especially in this case. It is fascinating that individuals tend to attack architecture when they want to communicate an urgent message or attack a system of beliefs, revealing the importance we attribute to architecture. Dixon’s un-making of the walls that were created to operate around white-supremacist ideals, and which once isolated Indigenous peoples from their families and land, is a way of actively reclaiming the power that was taken away from his people.

A built environment has the power of disguising a truth within its enclosure. What may appear as a mere brick wall to some is a painful reminder of the racist behaviour the Canadian government continues to inflict toward First Nations peoples. On February 1st, 2006, Dixon stood in front of the school that formerly broke him, sledgehammer in hand, ready to annihilate the stones that served as a barrier from his culture. Architecture has the power of making people feel, making people associate memories with spaces and layouts – it is more than its material appearance. This is why so many people gathered, and felt such a sense of satisfaction watching La Tuque Residential School crumble to the ground.

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Sarah Delnour is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 251.

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1 Steve Bonspiel, “La Tuque Residential School Razed- Demolition Is Closure for Hundreds of Abducted Cree Children Held at the School,” The Nation Archives 13, no. 7 (February 2006): 5

2 George Blacksmith, “The Intergenerational Legacy of the Indian Residential School System on the Cree Communities of Mistissini, Oujebougamau and Qaswanipi: An Investigative Research on the Experiences of Three Generations of the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec,” (PhD thesis, McGill University, 2010), 42.

3 Ward Churchill, Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2004), 18.

4 Blacksmith, “The Intergenerational Legacy of the Indian Residential School,” 45.

5 Blacksmith, “The Intergenerational Legacy of the Indian Residential School,” 43.

6 Daniel, “La Tuque Residential School,” National Residential School Memorial Register, last modified May 28, 2019, https://memorial.nctr.ca/?p=1300.

7 Blacksmith, “The Intergenerational Legacy of the Indian Residential School,” 22.

8 Peter Hulme, ” Columbus and the Cannibals: A Study of the Reports of Anthropophagy in the Journal of Christopher Columbus,” Ibero-amerikanisches Archive 4, no. 2 (1978): 119.

9 Steve Bonspiel, “La Tuque Residential School Razed- Demolition,” 5.

10 Sarah De Leeuw, “Artful Places: Creativity and Colonialism in British Columbia’s Indian Residential Schools,” (PhD thesis, Queen’s University, 2007), 141.

11 Ibid.

12 Steve Bonspiel, “La Tuque Residential School Razed- Demolition,” 5.

 

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