The National Trust for Canada recently released its top ten list of endangered places in Canada, and one of those places is a building in Western Manitoba with a dark past.
Birtle Residential School is a vacant three-storey brick and steel structure located on a large park-like piece of land just north of the town of Birtle. It was used by the Presbyterian Church as a residential school for indigenous children from 1931 to 1972.
Since being closed by the federal government, the building has changed hands several times and sat empty for many years, inviting vandalism and decay.
The National Trust and other proponents of heritage buildings would like to see it protected while its future is being decided. Their website says:
“Consensus has not yet emerged in the local Indigenous community about whether the former school should be preserved as a site of memory and conscience. Until that happens, the site needs to be secured and stabilized to ensure the historic fabric is not further eroded.”
Historian Dr. Gordon Goldsborough, who studies and documents Manitoba’s built heritage, has photographed the building and been inside it twice, as recently as last November.
He is torn between wanting to see it saved and wanting it wiped off the landscape.
“On a philosophical level, the fact that some people have had bad experiences there suggests that removing it should hopefully alleviate bad memories.
“On the other hand, keeping the building provides a tangible reminder of a regrettable time in our past that deserves to be remembered.”
But that decision may never have to be made if the school is damaged and weathered beyond saving. Goldsborough says the vandalism has been compounded by the theft of wiring and pipes throughout plus exposure to the elements has caused natural deterioration.
“I think it would be enormously costly to restore it.”
As one of just three residential schools still standing in Manitoba (the other two are in Winnipeg and Portage), the Birtle Residential School is a relic full of memories that continue to affect the lives of its survivors and their descendants.
To see the 2019 top ten list of endangered places in Canada, go to nationaltrustcanada.ca