Nov. 24, 2022

Project digitally preserves former Indian residential schools in Alberta

Imperial donation kicks off partnership with Indigenous communities and UCalgary
Old Sun College
Image shows a point cloud, or a set of data points generated by the 3D scanning process, superimposed on the exterior of the Old Sun College. Digital Preservation of Indian Residential Schools Project

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Of all the ghosts that weighed heavily on the shoulders of Brendon Many Bears as he worked his way with a 3D laser scanner across every inch of Old Sun Community College, it was those he encountered in the former coal closet that sat the most horrifically in the pit of his stomach.

The tiny room in the former Old Sun Indian Residential School, on Siksika Nation in southwest Alberta, was easy to miss, hidden away behind a metal door in the building’s boiler room. Through his interviews with residential school survivors, Many Bears knew that the room had been a place of punishment. When students at the residential school were caught speaking their own language or practising their culture, they would be locked in there, sometimes for days. The inside of the door still bears the scratched inscriptions of the poor souls once confined to the space. One of those inscriptions haunts Many Bears.

“It said: ‘L.D. is here and always will be here,’” recalls Many Bears. “That one stays with me. You feel the pressure of that sadness.”

Brendon Many Bears scanning the Old Sun boiler room

Brendon Many Bears scans the Old Sun boiler room.

Digital Preservation of Indian Residential Schools Project

It was the summer of 2020 and Many Bears, then a student at Old Sun, was working closely with University of Calgary archaeologist Dr. Peter Dawson, whose research focuses on digitally preserving at-risk sites of historical significance. Using terrestrial laser scanners and drones, along with historic photos and interviews with residential school survivors, Dawson and his team — which includes Dr. Derek Lichti (Geomatics Engineering) and Faramarz Samavati (Computer Science) — have created an accurate 3D digital record of the former residential school.

The project also includes the digital preservation of former residential school buildings University nuhelot’ine thaiyots’i nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills in St. Paul, Alta., and Poundmaker’s Lodge Carriage House, which once formed part of the Edmonton Indian Residential School in St. Albert and was lost to a fire in 2000.  

This Digital Preservation of Indian Residential Schools Project has been led and guided by advisory committees made up of community members from all three locations, including survivors from each of the residential schools. The project has also engaged Indigenous youth from the current colleges, giving students like Many Bears hands-on learning opportunities.

Now, thanks to a generous $75,000 donation from Imperial, Dawson, PhD'98, and his team are embarking on the second phase of the project, to digitally document the original grounds surrounding the three residential schools using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) mapping and mobile laser scanners.  

“Interviews with survivors have revealed residential school life was part of a larger cultural landscape which included hockey rinks, athletic grounds, barns, workshops, and gardens — many of which no longer exist,” says Dawson. “Learning about these spaces through digital preservation will provide a more complete account of what life at those schools was really like.”

Angie Ayoungman and Gwen Bear Chief taking apart a 3D printed model of Old Sun made using the scanning data

Angie Ayoungman and Gwen Bear Chief take apart a 3D printed model of Old Sun made using the scanning data.

Digital Preservation of Indian Residential Schools Project

The story of the coal room was no surprise to those who spent their childhoods at Old Sun Indian Residential School, because each of them experienced their own traumas.

Gwen Bear Chief was only five years old when she was taken from her parents to live at the school, where she remained until the age of 16. She remembers her Aunt Rose, an older student at the school, sneaking her out of the junior girls’ dorm every night so they could sleep in the same bed, as the scared kindergarten child sobbed helplessly.

Vivian Ayoungman, an educator at Old Sun Community College and head of the school’s advisory committee for the digital heritage project, remembers crying mothers congregating at the post office each day, praying for mail from their children who had been taken from them. When a letter would come in, all the mothers would flock around, desperate to know what was happening at the school.

Vivian herself was taken at the age of seven. She’ll never forget the day she uttered a Blackfoot word while at play. “The whistle blew and the whole class had to stand up straight,” she says. “The teacher shook me and took me to the principal’s office to be strapped. When I came back, my classmates were still standing in line. They weren’t allowed to play anymore because I spoke a Blackfoot word. I couldn’t speak a word of English at that point.”

Vivian and her sister Angie Ayoungman say digitally documenting the landscape surrounding Old Sun is a matter of great importance. These areas often served as a refuge for the students and provided outlets where they could personally excel. They proudly recall their brother’s triumphs as a track star. Old Sun’s hockey team was also boast worthy.

But that same landscape has its darker tales. The sisters tell of watching older students planting and harvesting in the large vegetable garden that fed the school. They felt envious, wishing they could be helping in the garden too. Only later did they realize the work was child labour.

“They weren’t in the classroom,” Angie points out. “They were slaving on the farm.”

The damage caused by the residential school system created a legacy of trauma that still impacts First Nations communities today.

“Many of my peers ended up suffering from addiction and family dysfunction handed down for generations,” says Bear Chief. “I’m on the digital heritage committee because I want our story told. That’s part of my healing.”

Vivian Ayoungman hopes that the digital preservation project will help her community reconnect with their culture. “Our people have been disconnected with who we are, because the whole purpose of residential schools was to sever those ties, to our language, our spirituality, our customs,” she says.

Some believe the residential schools should be destroyed, burnt down. No, we cannot burn them down. This is our evidence.

"Many people don’t believe what really happened here. That’s why we’ve worked so hard with the University of Calgary, scanning the building, digitizing the stories. Maybe when the public sees all of this in virtual reality, they will be more apt to listen.”

The scans for each of the three residential schools will eventually be archived at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. This data will ensure that a lasting record of these schools’ remains should they ever be damaged or destroyed in years to come.


Indian Residential School Survivors 24 HR Crisis Line – 1 (866) 925-4419 

Indian Residential School Resolution Health Support Programs Alberta – 1 (877) 477-0775 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission – 1 (888) 872-5554 

Alberta Counselling Services – 1 (403) 244-0244 

University of Calgary Staff, Faculty and Postdoctoral Scholar Wellness 

University of Calgary Student Wellness Services – 1 (403) 210-9355 x  2

University of Calgary Writing Symbols Lodge 

Hope for Wellness – crisis intervention and counselling, call toll-free 24/7 – 1 (855) 242-3310 or connect to the online chat 

Distress Centre – call the crisis line 24/7 at 403-266-4357, or access online chat from 3-10 p.m. on weekdays, noon-10 p.m. on weekends.

The first phase of the Digital Preservation of Indian Residential Schools Project is funded by a New Frontiers in Research Exploration Grant through the Government of Canada. A component of this phase, generously funded by Stantec, focuses on residential school history for UCalgary’s Indigenous Youth Engagement Program. The second phase of the project is being funded through a generous donation from Imperial.