July 27, 2020

Digital archives of Alberta residential schools may serve educational role

Three UCalgary projects receive support through New Frontiers in Research Fund
Old Sun Residential School.
Old Sun Residential School. Anglican Church website

A UCalgary researcher is working with a number of partners across Canada to develop a strategy for digitally archiving the physical structures of the few remaining residential schools in Alberta. Residential schools operated across Canada and removed First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their homes. This system disrupted cultures, lives and communities, creating long-term trauma among Indigenous Peoples. 

There were 130 residential schools across Canada; the last one closed operation in 1996. Out of the 25 that existed in Alberta, only a few buildings still remain and there is debate on what should be done with them. The buildings represent intergenerational trauma among Indigenous Peoples, but digital archives of these spaces may serve a role in education so we do not repeat the racist acts that enabled this system.

Many Indigenous communities are divided over the question of whether these existing buildings should be demolished,” says Dr. Peter Dawson, PhD, a professor in anthropology and archaeology in the Faculty of Arts. “Because residential schools are witnesses to history and sites of conscience, our Indigenous partners feel it is important that these places, and their associated memories and meanings, are remembered.”

Structures are testament to resilience

Dr. Vivian Ayoungman, BEd'70, EdD, from Old Sun College, Siksika Nation, is one of the project co-leads. From her point of view, it’s not only important to display to the world that these places existed and to share Indigenous stories of what happened in these places, but also to show that what the Nations are now doing in these places is a testament to their resilience.

“Our Siksika leadership, at the time these schools closed, saw this big building sitting empty and decided to transform it into an adult learning centre. The outcome is that many of our students who have passed through the halls of Old Sun Community College have now gone on to earn not only bachelor’s degrees but graduate degrees in many disciplines,” says Ayoungman.

Also, we want to show the stark difference in the use of the building that started out as a place to 'beat the Indian out of us' to one of reconnecting with and honoring our Siksikaitsitapiyisin by teaching about our heritage and protocol handed down through the generations.

When Ayoungman was teaching a Siksika language class and told her students about getting strapped for speaking Siksika, an Algonquian language, in the very room she was now teaching the language, she recalls loud cheers broke out from the students, saying, “They did not succeed, you are here teaching us our language.” 

“Through this project, I want to instill hope to our future generations about how we survived the collective trauma imposed on us as a people and it is about our love for them that we now offer Siksika Studies courses even though we are in a building that did not start out to serve the best interests of our people. 

"It would be nice to someday have enough funds to build a new structure and vacate the building to become a historic centre that tells our story, but in the meantime, we have a unique opportunity to show and tell our story digitally.”

How digital archiving works

This project will explore these and other issues relating to the archiving of residential school spaces through a community-guided digital heritage project. Two former provincial residential schools — Old Sun Community College and University nuhelot'įne thaiyots'į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills — will be digitally captured by Blackfoot and Cree students working with University of Calgary researchers in archaeology (Dawson), computer science (Dr. Faramarz Samavati, PhD) and geomatics engineering (Dr. Derek Lichti, PhD).

Peter Dawson, scans the interior of a heritage building

Peter Dawson, scans the interior of a heritage building.

A laser scanner is an imaging device that takes distance measurements in every direction, allowing it to rapidly capture the shapes of objects, buildings, and landscapes. Terrestrial laser scanning will be used to capture the interiors and exteriors of each building. With the assistance of former students and survivors who attended these schools and can recall various details of their appearance, a unique metadata tagging system for archiving the resulting digital data sets at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation will be developed which will incorporate Indigenous descriptive elements that are meaningful to survivors and community members.

Working with Indigenous partners, they will also explore how the resulting digital data can be used to create physical (3D printed) and virtual visualizations of these schools, as well as a complete set of “as-built” architectural plans that will help ensure they can be maintained, repaired, or rebuilt if that is the Nation’s decision.

Finally, a virtual exhibit for each school will be created using a website template developed to house digital heritage data from across Western Canada and the Canadian Arctic.

This project is being co-led by Dawson, Ayoungman (Old Sun College), and Dr. Sherri Chisan (University nuhelot'įne thaiyots'į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills). Collaborators include Raymond Frogner, head of archives, University of Manitoba, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Their project recently received funding from the Government of Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF).

The competition provides grants of up to $125,000 a year for two years for teams of two or more researchers. The NFRF is a federal research funding program that fosters world-leading discovery and innovation by encouraging Canadian researchers to explore, take risks, lead, and work with partners across disciplines and borders.

Two other UCalgary projects receive New Frontiers of Researchers funding

Dr. Ariel Ducey, PhD, associate professor, Faculty of Arts: Ducey, Dr. Martina Kelly, MD (family medicine) and Dr. Pratim Sengupta, PhD (learning sciences, Werklund) will examine the relationship between knowledge in the form of data, design of technologies and the sensory aspects of providing medical care.

The research project complements emerging studies of how work and services that have traditionally involved touch are being reconfigured by the emphasis on data-driven decisions and planning. The project will be a contribution to understanding, design, documenting, and archiving contemporary changes to the sensory infrastructure of our society — the nature of our embodied experiences and perceptions — and resulting effects on our behaviour toward one another and understanding of what it means to behave responsibly.

Dr. Wilten Nicola, PhD, assistant professor, Cumming School of Medicine: Nicola and Dr. David Dupret (University of Oxford) will examine how the hippocampus, a region of the brain that specializes in memory formation, stores, catalogs, and replays memories. 

This research will blend innovative techniques in modeling functional spiking neural networks in sillico with experiments in vivo under novel behavioral paradigms. This project will elucidate the structures, dynamics, functions, and malfunctions behind memory formation in the hippocampus.



ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, ‘in a good way,’ UCalgary is moving towards genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.