The facade of St. Michael's Indian Residential School looms over Alert Bay on a clear winter day.

The facade of St. Michael's Indian Residential School looms over Alert Bay on a clear winter day.

‘Namgis to raze St. Michael’s School

ALERT BAY—Healing, blessing ceremony to precede demolition of historic Indian Residential School building

ALERT BAY—After casting a shadow over Alert Bay — figuratively and literally — for the better part of a century, the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School building is coming down.

The monolithic, four-storey brick structure has loomed over the bay as a stark reminder of one of the darker chapters in the history of colonial relations with Canada’s aboriginal peoples. Though vacant for 12 years, except for periodic occupancy by carvers working out of its basement, the building has continued to draw survivors and family members who walk the halls or stand outside as part of personal healing rituals.

And the demolition of the building will be attended by a healing/cleansing ceremony expected to draw hundreds on Feb. 18.

“We want to celebrate the passing of a dark historical time by igniting new hope and optimism through continued healing and the potential for reconciliation,” said Verna Ambers, assistant administrator for the ‘Namgis Band, whose own mother attended the school for eight years before its closing at the end of 1974. “I think it’s going to be a sad time and a happy time. It’s going to be very emotional.”A young Doris Hall is shown looking out of a St. Michaels Indian Residential School window in a photo taken by fellow student Beverly Brown more than 70 years ago.

The decision to raze the building was approved by the ‘Namgis First Nation council last summer, but logistics and protocol dictated that “we sat on it,” as Ambers said. “We had to give a lot of consideration to survivors. People often say, ‘Oh, it happened a long time ago; let it go.’ But it’s not that easier for the survivors.”

Requests for proposal were submitted late last year, and the contract was expected to be awarded this week, after the Gazetted went to press with its print edition.

The demolition will take an extended period of time, said Wayne Cook, Capital and Housing Coordinator for the ‘Namgis.

“Asbestos remediation, that’s the first part,” said Cook. “Then we’ll have the demolition, and the final part is soil remediation. We’re working toward having it done by March 31, but that’s a best-case scenario.”

The ‘Namgis have no plans to rebuild on the location. Ambers said part of the property would be given over to parking for the adjacent U’mista Cultural Centre. Some of the bricks will be retained for the construction of a prospective memorial, though the type and timeframe of the memorial have not yet been determined.

The building and adjoining property was transferred in 1975 to the ‘Namgis First Nation. It then housed the band offices, along with a North Island College campus and health services treatment centre, along with a cafeteria and even a cabaret lounge in the basement, for more than two decades. In 2003 it was renamed ‘Namgis House, though it never shook its identity as St. Michael’s Indian Residential School.

“When we had the treatment centre there, one of the healing issues was people wanting to walk into building and experience that again,” said Ambers, who worked there when it housed the Band offices. “You’d be working and hear people screaming and crying. We asked the treatment centre to let us know when people were coming in, because we didn’t always know what was happening.”

But the building proved too expensive to keep up, however, and tenants eventually drifted away.

“Initially, we thought we could save that building,” said Ambers. “But every year it ran a deficit, and it got out of hand.”

When the current ‘Namgis administrative building was completed earlier this century, St. Michael’s was finally abandoned. Since then, it has deteriorated dramatically. A flood resulting from burst water pipes on the upper floor five years ago drove the last carvers from the basement, and the building has now become a health and safety concern.

“The inside walls are collapsing and one outside wall is bulging, so it’s starting to become a dangerous place,” Ambers said. “No matter how many times we board it up, the kids keep getting in there.”

The residential school in Alert Bay was actually established by the Anglican Church in 1982. When St. Michael’s was constructed by the government in 1928, with room for 200 live-in students, it was the largest of the schools under Anglican administration.

The residential school concept has since come under criticism for forcing students to surrender their native language and other cultural attributes.

Mike Willie and Kodi Nelson, joint proprietors of the aboriginal SeaWolf Adventure Tours, have made St. Michael’s a focal point since beginning their award-winning aboriginal tourism venture since beginning operation in 2013.

“There are some who believe that once it’s gone, people will forget what happened here,” Nelson said while addressing a tour group in front of the school in 2014. “They’d like to make it a museum. (But) we are rising from all this. And we will rise.”

 

Just Posted

Black Press file photo
RCMP seek suspect in Vancouver Island-wide crime spree

Crimes stretched from Deep Bay to Qualicum, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Youbou

Things are looking up for Vancouver Island as zero COVID-19 cases have been reported for the first time since October. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Island records zero new COVID-19 cases for the first time since October

For the first time since October, the province is reporting zero new… Continue reading

Black Press Media file
Port Hardy RCMP on the hunt for porta-pottie arsonist

The porta-potties were lit on fire early in the morning on June 13

Eke Me-Xi students enjoy a field trip to Malcolm Island. (Submitted photos)
Eke Me-Xi Learning Centre takes field trip to Malcolm Island

Once at Bere Point, students made themselves at home in the day-use area

Mount Waddington Regional Fall Fair logo
Mount Waddington Regional Fall Fair cancelled again due to COVID-19 restrictions

The 2022 fall fair is still scheduled to take place in Port Hardy

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York on Nov. 4, 2019. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Canadians who got AstraZeneca shot can now see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

B.C. mayor David Screech who received his second AstraZeneca dose last week can now attend the show

Most Read