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Bush plane monument in Thompson, Man., a painful reminder for residential school survivors

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A bush plane monument in Thompson, Man., meant as a tribute to aviation in the North also serves as a painful reminder to residential school survivors who were flown out of their communities to the schools.

“They just loaded us in the plane and that’s it. We didn’t have no choice at all,” said 76-year-old residential school survivor Rene Jobb, from Southend Reindeer Lake, Sask.

A couple of years ago, Jobb and his daughter travelled to the northern Manitoba city for a meeting.

While exploring the city, they came across the monument featuring a 1946 Norseman float plane, which was restored by volunteers and placed there in 2008 by members of the Spirit Way trail as a tribute to the aviation pioneers in the North.

Jobb realized it was the same type of plane that was used to transport him from Southend to Flin Flon, Man., on the way to Guy Hill Indian Residential School in The Pas, Man.

“A lot of kids were wrestled to go in the plane,” he said.

“They just put ’em on a plane and took off from there. It was all about crying from there to Flin Flon.”

Jobb was about eight years old the first time he was put on the plane and sent to residential school. 

He spent four years from 1953-1957 at Guy Hill and said, “what had happened to us, it wasn’t very nice.”

Rene Jobb was taken away from his family in a plane like this one. It brought up painful memories when he visited Thompson in 2018. (Rachel Mersasty)

When he saw the plane in Thompson, he said it brought up a lot of painful memories.

“I was standing there beside that plane, [and thought] boy, there must be a lot of tears here inside the plane,” said Jobb. 

Rachel Merasty, Jobb’s daughter, said he has been educating her family on his residential school experience since they were old enough to understand what happened. 

“To see the actual plane that he went in, it brought it even more to reality,” she said.

“It hit me hard.”

Reminder of the North’s history

The monument sits on the main entry road into the city, making it unavoidable for many of the First Nations people visiting from surrounding communities.

Andrina Dumas, whose mother was taken to Guy Hill residential school via bush plane, thinks it should be removed.

“It pisses me off that it’s up there and everybody knows what it was used for,” said Dumas.

“I think it should be taken down and moved somewhere else, like maybe the float plane base that’s in that same area. That’s what it’s supposed to represent.”

A plaque explaining the role the bush plane had in residential schools was set by the monument in 2019 and has become a gathering place for residential school survivors in Thompson. (Shyanna Lynxleg/MKO)

Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation Elder Marie Ballantyne said that’s a common view.

“It’s a part of the history of Thompson itself and a lot of the residential school survivors have a difficult time [seeing it],” she said. 

“I talked to a lot of people that really would like to see the plane go down. But then that is part of the history of this area.”

Manitoba Keewatinook Okimakinak, representing northern First Nations chiefs, and the Thompson Urban Aboriginal Strategy placed a plaque in 2019 near the plane to mark the role the planes had in transporting children to residential schools. It was used as a gathering place after the announcement late last month that a ground-penetrating radar survey revealed potential student remains on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

On June 4, Manitoba Keewatinook Okimakinak organized a memorial event at the monument for families affected by the tragic discovery at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. People in Thompson took turns stopping by the site to offer tobacco ties. (Shyanna Lynxleg/MKO)

Ballantyne, who has lived in Thompson since the late 1970s, said she feels like it should stay as a reminder of the history of the North.

“That plane … it goes back way back to when Thompson first established itself,” said Ballantyne.

“That plaque has an impact because it is a place where a lot of the survivors go … It brings you back to the time when you were maybe at the residential school far away from home, not being able to go home.”

Jobb said that despite the memories that it brings up, he would like to visit the plane in Thompson again in the future.

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