The Storybase: What U of T did and what you can do
By Shirley Yue Chen, News & Campus Life Staff Writer
Disclaimer: Mention of residential school and death
In 2023, it seems unlikely for Canadians of our generation to be unaware of Indigenous issues. But this is the reality of many, according to first-year John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design student, Isabella Hernandez.
Growing up in Québec City, Isabella barely recalls any education about residential schools.
“We briefly went over it, but I will say [it’s] maximum one chapter in one unit. I cannot remember information about it.”
Faced with the task of education and reconciliation, U of T’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Commemoration took place on September 29th. The University revealed new initiatives to promote reconciliation efforts and empower Indigenous voices.
Rose Patten, the University’s chancellor, announced that U of T will cover the tuition of students from nine Indigenous communities whose territories include or are near the land on which the University operates.
The domestic Ontario tuition, extended to out-of-province Indigenous students in 2022, will now apply to Indigenous students from the continental United States.
The commemoration also unveiled U of T’s 2023 orange shirt design. The design, titled noojimo’iwe (“s/he heals”), features three children holding hands, surrounded by blooming flowers. The designer, MJ Singleton, is an Ojibwe, two-spirit student from UTM. Singleton aims to highlight “the importance of healing the intergenerational trauma of residential schooling by supporting and loving those around you.”
Canada’s history of residential schools is at the heart of reconciliation, which leads to the reveal of another initiative: the Storybase. This online archive presents over 500 curated stories from residential school survivors, making it not a database but a “storybase.”
A group of U of T librarians began this project last year. They wanted to go beyond research guides and book clubs to help preserve Indigenous histories.
The Storybase focuses on the lived experiences and intergenerational effects of residential schools. It features diverse media formats: texts, artworks, audiovisual contents, and more.
The Storybase’s model is neither extractive nor exploitative. It only serves to refer users to original sources, such as the CFNR radio network and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s archive. This helps to ensure that Indigenous voices retain control over their own narratives because they can freely remove or modify the content. The Storybase makes these stories more accessible and interconnected.
“Canadians of all ages, from all walks of life, can use these stories to listen to more of the truth, and learn and unlearn, and hopefully… encourage others to do the same, and turn the emotions that they are feeling into action.” Mikayla Redden, who worked on the project, said during the commemoration. “That’s what reconciliation is: it’s an action.” Redden is a New College librarian of Anishinaabe and Anglo-settler heritage.
The Storybase’s “Take Action” page can assist students in doing exactly that. This page provides access to additional learning resources and residential-school support organizations. The “Actions for Settlers” section is especially helpful for non-Indigenous students.
Student Perspective #1: International
Jodi Chan is a third-year exchange student. She has recently arrived in Canada from Singapore. Her perspective reflects those of many non-Indigenous students, especially students from abroad.
Jodi has a general understanding of the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. She first learned of the residential school system through online news coverage of the discovery of over 200 children buried at the Kamloops Residential School in 2021.
“I haven’t really read into what it actually was. But from what I’ve heard, [there] were schools that the young Indigenous children were put into in a way to get them to conform to the new standards [of European settlers]. A lot of these children were abused or even killed.”
When introduced to the Storybase, Jodi thought that it is definitely a resource that she would look into personally to further educate herself.
“Storytelling is a great way to get people to empathize [with] and understand the horrors that others have been through.” said Jodi. “It allows us to see the human face behind the facts or numbers.”
Seeing leads to knowing, and knowing can lead to acting.
Student Perspective #2: Canadian
Returning to Isabella, she became more aware of Canada’s Indigenous history after she moved to Alberta at the age of 16 and later to Toronto, which has a more open-minded school system and more diversity according to her.
Isabella now believes that teaching about residential schools is essential, especially in Quebec, because it will inspire changes in institutions and attitudes.
“All the information that I have is what I have acquired from outside of school [in Quebec]. [In Quebec], residential school is closed, but… people are still ignorant about it. There’s no open discussion. I heard now they’re teaching it more at schools, but still, it is not emphasized. There’s no curiosity about learning, [since] a patriotic mentality is very present. It’s more about the Francophones than Indigenous and other cultures.”
As such, the discrepancy between provincial educational systems may hinder reconciliation efforts.
“[In Quebec,] resources concerning Indigenous survivors from residential schools are not easily available. If there are, they’re [mostly] in English. It makes things way harder to get yourself educated.”
As a solution, Isabella thinks that educational resources, like the Storybase and its archived stories, should also be available in French.
“It’s not going to change everything [overnight]. But I believe the more resources we have available in French to educate people about the subject, the more we’re going to reach people. Slowly. It’s not easy. ”
With a long way to go, the path to reconciliation is still far and difficult. But you can easily start here: uoft.me/storybase.