Northern Manitoba school to be renamed, after link to residential schools discovered in decades-old letter

A northern Manitoba chief says she’ll be looking to her community for input on what to rename a school, after it was recently discovered it held the name of someone who played a role in the residential school system.  

“In some way I’m thinking …  a Cree name. That would mean a lot,” said O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation Chief Shirley Ducharme. 

Ducharme said the Nursery to Grade 10 school, which has been known as Oscar Blackburn School, is located in the community of just over 1,000 people, at South Indian Lake. 

She said the revelation about Blackburn and his link to residential schools came after the remains of 215 children were found buried on the site of a former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C.

A letter dating back to 1960, which recently came to light, shows Blackburn was involved in sending First Nations children to residential schools, she said. 

Until the letter surfaced, she had known of Blackburn being referred to as one of the first teachers in the community.  

“Right away in my mind I said … ‘This is very shocking. How is it going to impact our survivors?'” said Ducharme.  

What it did, she said, was bring back people’s memories. 

“How they were, you know, uprooted from their family and taken away and then it triggered really this bad experience at the residential school.” 

The decision was made to notify the Frontier School Division about the impact the letter and what it meant was having on residents. 

… we needed to move, we needed to act and we did.– Frontier School Division chief superintendent Reg Klassen

Reg Klassen, the division’s chief superintendent, said the school’s sign was taken down Tuesday, marking the first step in the school’s renaming process. 

“There were people in the community that were devastated when they saw that information because they didn’t know it,” said Klassen. “So we needed to move, we needed to act and we did.” 

Klassen added that when a name from the past is used and it’s later discovered they had a role in harming others, change is needed.  

“That’s our opportunity to stand up for what’s right,” he said. 

‘Remove painful reminders’: Dumas

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, issued a statement supporting the decision Wednesday. 

“During these distressing times as all First Nations in Manitoba and across the country grieve and relive the terrible crimes inflicted on our loved ones through the residential schools, it is important to remove painful reminders of this past within our schools and educational institutions. It takes great courage and great leadership to change the course of history and to chart a new path forward,” said Dumas. 

Sean Carleton, an assistant professor in the department of History and Indigenous Studies at the University of Manitoba, said things such as monuments or street names are not history — they are commemorations. 

“Changing who we choose to honour in public spaces, doesn’t erase history,” said Carleton.

“It really just means that we are making different kinds of choices about how we communicate the values of our society to people in public. And I think the decision to change the emphasis of who we here in Winnipeg or Manitoba or across the country choose to honour, I think it says a lot about what we want to communicate to future generations about the values we want people to aspire to.” 

Klassen said the final decision on the new name of the school will be up to the community and the division plans to collaborate to help make that happen.

Ducharme said that right now it’s also important to continue to focus on the ongoing healing that’s needed for residential school survivors. 

“Right across the country these wounds will be reopened,” she said. 

Support available for survivors

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.