Residential school survivor has mixed emotions after watching memorial centre burn

·3 min read
The Senator Allen Bird Memorial Centre in Prince Albert burned to the ground Friday, robbing the community of a central hub for events. (Prince Albert Grand Council - image credit)
The Senator Allen Bird Memorial Centre in Prince Albert burned to the ground Friday, robbing the community of a central hub for events. (Prince Albert Grand Council - image credit)

While some portions on the west side of the Senator Allen Bird Centre remain standing, most of the historic centre has been reduced to unsalvageable rubble. One residential school survivor is conflicted with how to feel about its destruction—given its role in the residential school system.

Firefighters and other emergency services were called to the centre in Prince Albert Friday morning for a report of a fire. By the afternoon, the roof had collapsed and the building is now considered a total loss.

Tom Roberts says he's disheartened to see a historic centre, which is used by the community for celebration, ceremony, charity and grieving, now charred and destroyed.

I was kind of happy it's gone because it's part of the legacy of residential schools, but then again sad because … that was one place we had fun at residential school. - Tom Roberts

However, a part of him sees the building as a vestige of the residential school system, and the seven years he spent at the Prince Albert Indian residential school where he recallls the memorial centre being used as a "drill hall."

"I was kind of happy it's gone because it's part of the legacy of residential schools, but then again sad because … that was one place we had fun at residential school," Roberts said.

He says he was driving through Prince Albert on Friday afternoon when he heard about the fire and decided to see it for himself.

"We had a lot of stuff that happened in that building, and those memories flashed back when we saw it burning down," Roberts said.

WATCH| Residential school survivor has mixed emotions watching memorial centre burn:

Prince Albert firefighters stayed at the building through the night, and began to investigate the cause of the fire Saturday, along with Prince Albert police.

In a statement late Friday, the police service asked for witnesses who were in the area between 8 and 8:40 a.m. on Friday to contact them with information that could help their investigation. There are no known injuries due to the fire.

Roberts, who counsels residential school survivors at the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, says he and other children from across Saskatchewan stayed in the centre.

"A lot of people don't understand what that building stands for … it's a piece of history that dates back 60 years and should never be forgotten," he said.

"There's stories of abuse at the Prince Albert residential school, but in that hall that burned, we had fun there," he said, recalling dances, talent shows, Halloween parties, athletic competitions and air cadet training at the facility.

"A lot of the younger generation now used to use it for a fine arts festival … and showcasing the culture in that building," he said. "That's going to be missed."

Ken Landers
Ken Landers

The Prince Albert Grand Counci (PAGC), which owned and operated the facility, says it is devastated by the loss of the the centre, named after the late Senator Allen Bird, a decorated war veteran and elder from Montreal Lake Cree Nation.

"It was first built in 1940 and was part of the residential school for a time period. Since then, many people have come to regard it as a place of healing," PAGC vice-chief Christopher Jobb said in the statement.

In an interview Friday, vice-chief Joseph Tsannie said youth are most affected by the loss because it was the hub for many Indigenous athletes.

"Buildings and materials can always be replaced, but it is a symbol of PAGC and I know within our First Nations, our members are feeling the impact and feel a sadness because that was our home," he said.

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