Langara’s Writing Lives course helps students understand the impact of residential schools

Students are partnered with Indigenous residential school survivors to help write their memoirs


By Safoura Rigi-Ladiz and Lucas Jornitz


For some, learning to write memoirs by interviewing Indigenous elders was in the hope of gaining a greater understanding of the darker parts of Canadian history. For some of the Indigenous students, it was about giving residential school survivors a chance to tell their own story in their own words.

In Langara’s English course Writing Lives: The Residential School Survivor Memoir Project, students gain a greater understanding of residential schools by having conversations with survivors.

Dylan MacPhee, a second-year psychology student at Langara, is taking the course. He said that part of the reason he chose to join the class was because of his lack of knowledge about residential schools and not being taught very much about it in school.

“I know that in high school, we kind of talked about it for a day,” MacPhee said. “I knew about it but I didn’t understand the gravity of it.”

MacPhee said although the two-semester Writing Lives course is an English class, they focused on learning Indigenous literature and history in the first semester, including the history of residential schools. This prepares them for writing the memoirs in the second term.

“You touch on different Indigenous themes and start to understand what the Indigenous perspective is,” he said. “It’s with the goal of having a better understanding going into the second semester when you’re actually doing the work.”


Indigenous elders have control of how their story is told


Indigenous student Rayann Harris said the class gives the residential school survivors the opportunity to tell their own story.

“We learned a lot of background so that we could be more compassionate and more educated when it came to interviewing the residential school survivor,” said Harris, who is enrolled in Aboriginal studies at Langara.

Harris said the course is unique as it allows the Indigenous participants to be in charge of their own story. She said she’s noticed that historically, research has often been done on Indigenous people instead of with Indigenous people. Letting the survivors guide the memoir-writing process adds a level of respect to teaching the history of Canadian residential schools.

MacPhee said speaking with the residential school survivors has been impactful.

“It’s a heavy experience but you feel very privileged to be working with someone and having them share their story with you,” MacPhee said. “It really makes you understand better when you’re getting a first-hand account from a person that actually experienced it. It’s that much more impactful.”

Survivors tell their stories about what it was like to live through residential school but writing the memoirs on such a weighty subject isn’t easy, according to course instructor Jill Goldberg.

“It’s been a process of both intellectual and emotional preparation,” Goldberg said.


Jill Goldberg talks about preparing her class for interviewing the Indigenous residential school survivors.


Partnership brings opportunities for education, reconciliation


The class is partnered with the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. Although many survivors are unable to speak about their trauma, students connect with survivors who are open to talking about their experiences.

Rick Ouellet, the Director of Indigenous Education and Services at Langara, feels this is the start of a productive dialogue and can serve to inform those who are unaware of residential schools.

“As Canadians, we’re taught that we’re very respectful people, we don’t do this kind of thing. So finding out about it, I think it’s a challenge, and we kind of have to revisit who we are,” he said.

Mary Jane Joe, Langara’s Elder in Residence, said the course will allow students to take away a greater understanding of the impact of residential schools.

“It’s really important to bridge gaps to bring awareness,” Joe said. “I’m really glad to see that it’s happening here. Because to me, it’s partaking in reconciliation, in authenticity.”


Mary Jane Joe, Langara’s Elder in Residence, discusses the impact of residential schools.


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