No plans to replace old residential school buildings in Fort Smith: Minister Simpson

Two schools in Fort Smith are currently housed in old residential school buildings. (Supplied by staff.
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The GNWT says it has no plans to replace two schools in Fort Smith which are housed in old residential school buildings, despite calls from residents and Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos.

As Canada reacts to the news about the mass-grave underneath a former residential school in Kamloops where 215 children were found buried, the NWT is reckoning with their own history with residential schools.

Fourteen such sites existed at some point in the Northwest Territory’s history. The last residential school closed in 1994, Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife, which used to be where École Sir John Franklin High School now stands.

Speaking in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, Martselos cited Historica Canada, which reports only nine residential school buildings are still standing, with two still open as schools in Fort Smith.

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Martselos called on the buildings that house Joseph Burr Tyrell Elementary School and Paul William Kaeser High School to be replaced.

“Numerous people have told me over the years that it can be hard sometimes to enter or even go in these buildings because it is a constant reminder, living reminder, of the personal and intergenerational trauma from residential schools,” she said. 

“Educators have tried their best to make JBT and PWK as welcoming as they can but no matter how hard they try, they can never change the feeling and the trauma that is associated with these buildings,” she added.

Education Minister R.J. Simpson said there had been no infrastructure issues identified with the JBT school building and there were no technical reasons to replace the schools, adding that the last assessment was done in 2005 and there are not currently any plans for another one to be done.

“We can’t ignore the fact that the schools were residential schools,” he said. “But in terms of the age of the facilities and the technical status of them, they are in very good condition. You know, what we don’t do well is we don’t keep up appearances well.” 

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“So we don’t refresh schools with new paint and those kinds of things to make them look new but, really, the school itself is solid,” he added. “Any new school would likely be, you know, significantly smaller. You know, the two schools might turn into one school based on the fact that they’re both at about 50 percent utilization and that back then schools were built much bigger.”

Simpson said he had heard some concerns from residents shared by the South Slave Divisional Council about the old residential school buildings still being used, but said there were no plans to replace them.

A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support. Support services can be accessed by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866 925-4419.

Correction notice: In a previous version of this article, it read that Akaitcho Hall was open until 1996. It was open until 1994. We apologize for the error.

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