WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Residential school survivor Emma Reelis is standing in a St. John’s garden that is overgrown with weeds as she recounts the pain of what happened at schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. There was physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Children lost their languages and cultures.

“I can only speak for myself. I know there are a lot of people who don’t like talking about residential schools but I want to talk about it because a lot of people were abused and never went home,” said Reelis, an Inuk woman who for five years attended the Yale School in North West River, in central Labrador. 

“A lot of people had babies when they were in residential school because they were sexually abused… children having children.”

Reelis accepts that some people choose not to speak about it but she urges those who can to do it.

“We’re getting our story out and I think it should come out. It should be spoken about. It should be talked about so it won’t happen again,” she said. “I think that by us talking about it we can help other people who were abused in orphanages and foster care too.”

A woman wearing a purple jacket speaks into a CBC microphone.
Inuk elder Emma Reelis was born in Nain but has lived in St. John’s since the 1960s. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

The Residential School Memorial Garden will soon replace the ragged green space where Reelis is speaking to CBC. Its goals will be healing and education.

The garden is now being designed for First Light, an Indigenous organization that supports thousands of indigenous people in the St. John’s area with cultural and recreational programs and services.

‘It’s going to be really, really beautiful’

The memorial garden will be behind First Light’s headquarters at 40 Quidi Vidi Rd., outside offices known as Caledonia Place. The building had once been St. Joseph’s church.

Caledonia Place was built in 1954, and was formerly known as St. Joseph’s church. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

The neglected green space has been reclaimed by urban plants that thrive in disturbed soil, including dandelions, maple saplings and hemlock.

That’s going to change.

“It’s going to be really, really beautiful. There will be Labrador trees, the kudlik lamp and the inukshuk. The First Nations talking circle and drumming,” said Reelis.

WATCH | Take an early peek into the plans for the memorial garden, with First Light’s Heidi Dixon: 

An early look at the planned Residential School Memorial Garden in St. John’s

Heidi Dixon of First Light walks us through an overgrown green space that will soon be converted to a place for healing and education

The garden will mark the experiences of those who attended residential schools operated by either the International Grenfell Association or the Moravian Missionaries in the communities of St. Anthony, Cartwright, North West River, Nain and Makkovik.

Elders like Reelis have influenced the plans for the garden, which will be built by Mills and Wright Landscape Architecture Inc.

Landscape architect Victoria Fitzgerald worked on the site design in consultation with elders and with First Light.

“I started with my own research. I wanted to come equipped with something but there is really nothing like sitting down with the people you are designing for,” she said.

Fitzgerald said the design of the garden is a direct result of those conversations.

A woman speaks into a CBC microphone while standing in a grassy area.
Victoria Fitzgerald is a landscape architecht at Mills and Wright Landscape Architecture. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

“The big thing that I took from meeting with them was that the residential school survivors want this to be an area where people can learn and walk in their shoes. They want people to understand what they went though in residential schools and that led us to designing a path of reflection that will come down around the back of the building,” she said.

The centrepiece of the garden will be a metal and wooden structure that resembles a drum.

“Corten steel is what we are planning to use for all of the posts and they’ll be throughout the site as a wayfinding element. It’s a type of steel that, as it grows older, it actually gets stronger and that’s what we are trying to embrace — that even though residential school survivors have been through tragedy, they’ve grown stronger over time.”

Heidi Dixon says renovation work on First Light’s Quidi Vidi Road offices will start next year. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Designing a safe, comfortable space

Heidi Dixon, First Light’s manager of operations, said the garden is part of a larger plan to refurbish the organization’s premises on Quidi Vidi Road.

Dixon says the garden will be built after the main building has been renovated.

Even though we’ve experience a lot of harm and a lot of hurt, we are still really strong and proud to be here.– Heidi Dixon


First Light has received $3 million from the federal government for its plans but because the organization is still fundraising, it’s impossible to say when the renovations and the garden will be completed.

Dixon said First Light hopes to begin renovations next year. She said the garden component has an estimated budget of $420,000.

“We’re really hoping the garden will be a safe space where people will feel comfortable, for us to have programs, as well as to educate the public,” she said.

“So people can understand the residential school system and the impact it had on our survivors. We hope it opens people’s eyes to the strength of our survivors. Even though we’ve experienced a lot of harm and a lot of hurt, we are still really strong and proud to be here.”

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

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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