Lydia Dillenbeck stepped into a former residential school chapel and was fascinated with the structure until she learned who built it.
“I felt comfortable in the space until our tour guide told us the building had been built by children ages 8 to 15,” says Dillenbeck, a first-year social sciences student and a member of St. Michael’s College.
“Suddenly, I wasn’t just reading about history; I was sitting on it. The pew I was sitting on was made by children. The comfort I felt was replaced by disgust.”
Reading a death registry in the church and visiting a graveyard where children are believed to be buried added to her turmoil.
“Within the span of 30 minutes, we were confronted with the realities of the residential school system in the forms of child labour and children’s deaths,” she says.
The visit to the chapel was part of the International/Indigenous Course Module (ICM) portion of the St. Michael’s College seminar course: The Christianity, Truth and Reconciliation Seminar.
The course explores the complex relations of Christianity and Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. The Faculty of Arts & Science’s ICM program provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to travel outside Toronto, often internationally, for a hands-on learning experience.
Topics covered include the life stories of prominent Indigenous leaders; the emergence of Canada as a settler state and the history of the residential school system; and themes of conflict and engagement including apologies and reparations, education, treaty relationships and land.
“The purpose of the trip was to spend a week thinking about the residential school system by being on a residential school site, and doing work connected to that site,” says trip organizer, Reid Locklin, an associate professor of Christianity and the Intellectual Tradition at U of T, a joint appointment with St Michael’s College and the Department for the Study of Religion.
During the November reading week, Dillenbeck and three other students toured the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Academia became a reality. It felt pretentious to analyze and discuss their stories the same way we would in class; sitting and listening was better. And I valued meeting with survivors because they embodied hope and reconciliation.
She and the other students received archival training from the Shingwauk staff, met with residential school survivors and engaged in a variety of activities that celebrated Indigenous culture and communities.
The experience was deeply moving and transformative for Dillenbeck who appreciated the small group, as well as the instructors who provided guidance and support.
“Their support was especially valuable given the emotional challenge of the course material,” she says.
Zoe Wong, also a first-year social science student, and a member of New College shared Dillenbeck’s appreciation for the connections made within a small group.
“I enjoyed developing in an intimate space alongside my professor and classmates,” says Wong. “This rare space allows us to truly connect with one another and unite our unique experiences in a powerful setting closely related to our course content.”
Locklin, Dillenbeck, Wong and the other students were especially grateful for the insights from Lorrie Gallant — an artist, writer and educator from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, Cayuga Nation from the Turtle Clan. She is an intergenerational survivor of the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School and a former Education Program Coordinator at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario.
“Lorrie was an enormous help to us,” says Dillenbeck. “She recounted stories and led us through reflection exercises every day.”
“She brought an even wider wisdom and knowledge from her own biography and experience,” says Locklin. “All of that gave the students a real living experience of residential schools.”
In addition to Gallant, Dillenbeck and Wong found listening to other residential school survivors powerful, bringing an added dimension to their studies.
“Academia became a reality,” says Dillenbeck. “It felt pretentious to analyze and discuss their stories the same way we would in class; sitting and listening was better. And I valued meeting with survivors because they embodied hope and reconciliation.”
Wong describes engaging with the survivors as, “an encounter I cannot forget.”
“When they spoke about their experiences as children at the site we were sitting in, it was like witnessing a richly depicted journal speak. Their expression of terror and desperation, interspersed with tints of gratitude and joy, translates more effectively than ever through their spoken words. Our ability to respond and ask about their experiences amplifies this impact; strengthening our insights and perceptions regarding Christianity, Truth and Reconciliation.”
Locklin also found the survivor stories moving and experienced a shift from teacher to student.
Accompanying the students on the trip for the first time, I wasn’t in a very different situation than they were, in terms of my lived encounters with the residential school system in Canada. I teach at the university, so I'm used to being the expert. One of the values of experiential learning is that oftentimes you're not the expert. It’s the people on the ground doing the work, or the people who have a depth of experience and knowledge from their own life.
“Accompanying the students on the trip for the first time, I wasn’t in a very different situation than they were, in terms of my lived encounters with the residential school system in Canada,” says Locklin.
“I teach at the university, so I'm used to being the expert. One of the values of experiential learning is that oftentimes you're not the expert. It’s the people on the ground doing the work, or the people who have a depth of experience and knowledge from their own life.”
He decided the best teaching technique was “to listen and to let others be witness to the truth and try to stay out of the way of that.”
For both Dillenbeck and Wong, visiting Shingwauk was difficult at times, but ultimately it was intensely meaningful.
“As an international student from Hong Kong, I am very grateful for this opportunity to primarily engage with the origins of Canadian land, a country I am currently residing in,” says Wong.
“This was a rare and deeply impactful experience as I unexpectedly and consistently find cross-cultural connections between the indigenous community and my East-Asian roots. “This trip was no doubt one of the most reflective and insightful learning experiences I have ever had.”
“When we learn in the classroom, we have an emotional buffer,” says Dillenbeck. “We discuss and analyze serious topics without fully realizing their impacts. At Shingwauk, that emotional buffer was stripped away.
“That residential school may have been a cold, dark and traumatic place, but the people we met have transformed it into a place of healing, growth and hope. I’m grateful that I was able to witness it and be a part of it. I will always remember that history is not just text, but real lived experiences.”
The Faculty of Arts & Science’s ICM program provides an opportunity for the incorporation of an intensive international or Indigenous experiential module into the framework of existing undergraduate courses. ICMs usually take place over the November or February Reading Week, but an ICM can also take place in May for non-graduating students. ICMs are designed to enhance students’ classroom learning through the application of course content to relevant settings and communities around the globe.