The shell of the former St. Joseph’s School for Girls stands gutted and overgrown on Garnier Road, walking distance from the Spanish Municipal Marina.
The site is privately owned but the gate to the property is open; those who have come to mourn and pay their respects have hung medicine bags and wooden medallions on the fence and laid children’s shoes at the base of the structure on crumbling brick and concrete.
Bright green foliage blankets the ground inside the building and the property owners have stacked firewood in the empty first-floor windows.
A keen observer might spot evidence of the fire that ravaged the school in 1958 and the lives of those who used to walk the halls. But an old, rusted tricycle and the burnt remains of what looks like a doll’s head don’t begin to tell the story of what happened there.
The horrifying trauma of the residential schools lives instead in the hearts and minds of its survivors and their children.
“It’s a scar on the community. Anyone who grew up in this town knew and felt the effects of that school,” said Stacy Sauve, a local artist who sketched both residential school buildings after having recurring dreams of the site when she was a young girl.
Her sketches are featured on a monument erected in a field across the street from St. Joseph’s. It was installed in 2009 to honour of all the children who attended the schools.
About a year later, Sauve obtained permission from town council to carve figures into a white willow tree located in the same field. One of the faces she carved was named “the protector of the children” by a local elder.
“The survivors of the residential schools used to say that they could hear the Jesuits walking through the halls at night and they wished they had a protector who could have watched over them,” she said.
As more unmarked graves are recovered near residential schools across Canada, including 215 in Kamloops, B.C. and 751 near Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowesness First Nation in Saskatchewan, the nation is facing a reckoning.
With Canada Day approaching, many believe that it’s not a time to celebrate, but to mourn.
“For some of us, it’s a cold splash of water waking us up to the realities that had been kept hidden. For Indigenous people, these discoveries have brought pain and trauma back to the surface,” said Sudbury MPP Jamie West.
The reality is, he added, that nothing will be the same again.
West threw his support behind Science North on Tuesday following the leadership’s decision to cancel its Canada Day event this year.
“All Canadians have a responsibility to express care and understanding for survivors, and to learn about the history, legacy and intergenerational trauma of residential schools,” said the science centre in a press release.
“We will spend our time on July 1 reflecting on the history of Indigenous peoples, our country, and the impacts of that history on the path forward for our country.”
Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger also released a statement supporting Science North in its decision.
“We need to know truth before any reconciliation can happen, and we need to understand, recognize and act to make positive change happen and stop racism and institutes of systemic racism regarding inequities Indigenous peoples face,” he said.
Science North is not alone in this decision. The Little Current Business Improvement Area, the Township of Assiginack, and NEMI on Manitoulin Island also canceled all planned activities.
The Anishinabek Nation is asking Canadians to consider wearing orange instead of red on Thursday to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people, honour survivors, and remember the children that never made it home.
“We know the history, we have heard the stories, and we know that there will inevitably be more grave sites that will come to light. As a collective, we need to find and understand the truth before we can consider any kind of reconciliation,” said Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe.
The best thing that Canadians can do right now, he added, is to learn about residential schools and Indigenous history in this nation.
“Even though those kids are in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, we still feel for them,” said Patsy Corbiere, tribal chair of the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising.
“We also know that this issue is going to impact Manitoulin Island when you look at what happened in the residential schools in Spanish.”
The Spanish Indian Residential Schools, which were in operation between 1913 and 1965, were located on the north short of Lake Huron on the Canadian Pacific Railway line between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie.
St. Peter Claver School for Boys, later known as St. Charles Garnier College, was established on a 600-acre parcel of land. The three-storey building was built to house 200 students, and it was the only residential school in Ontario operated by the Jesuits.
St. Joseph’s School for Girls was operated by the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. Both schools were officially shut down in 1965, and Garnier College was demolished in 2004.
“These schools are significant because Garnier College was the first high school built for Indigenous people in Canada, I believe,” said Stacy Sauve.
It was also one of the only schools in the country, she added, that integrated white and Metis children into the school population following the condemnation of the local public school.
“They ended up sending all of the local children to the residential schools. A lot of the children got to go home at night because their families lived here, but they still witnessed a lot of what went on there,” she said.
The abuse and neglect that occurred in residential schools across the country is well documented. Sauve, whose father attended Garnier College, recalls horrifying incidents that happened within those walls.
“They put the fear into the people so badly that many of them won’t speak against the schools. Those might be the children who had a bit of an easier time,” she said.
“Then there were those who had a much more difficult time. My auntie told me the story of a girl who was coming out of a class when she tripped. The nun kicked her in the neck, and she died. Everyone had to walk over her body.”
Just up the street from St. Joseph’s, walking away from the marina, is a graveyard called Mount Calvary Cemetery.
Some of the graves in the cemetery belong to members of the Jesuit order, including Eugene Papineau, who was the principal at St. Peter Claver’s from 1916 to 1917. There is also a monument erected in memory of all the children who died at the local residential schools.
The space between Mount Calvary and the Spanish marina is now a residential area. However, Sauve said that before the homes were built, that stretch of land used to be a potter’s field.
A potter’s field, also known as a paupers’ grave or common grave, is a place for burial of unknown, unclaimed or indigent people.
“Why would the township build houses on top of an old graveyard? It’s in our history. It is written. That is where poor people used to bury their loved ones,” said Sauve.
It is not clear who exactly would have used the potter’s field and when – whoever was laid to rest there, be it victims of the residential schools, their Indigenous ancestors, or another local population, is not documented as far as Sauve can tell.
Scott Hamilton, chair of Lakehead University’s archaeology department in Thunder Bay, knows that forgotten graveyards are commonplace.
He authored a report titled “Where Are the Children Buried?” for the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 after using satellite imagery to try and locate possible burial sites near residential schools.
“In my report, you will notice that I spent a lot of time trying to contextualize residential schools, what happened there, and what might have led them to do certain things,” he said.
The federal government, he found, was slow to develop a formal policy governing the burial of students – the earliest dating from 1958.
The Department of Indian Affairs was only prepared to authorize “minimum funeral expenditures,” and there was often confusion about which governing body was responsible for residential schools and cemeteries upon closure.
“It was certainly no surprise to hear about the unmarked graves being discovered across Canada. It was very much expected by anyone who had done any kind of research at these schools or had listened to the testimony of survivors,” said Hamilton.
“There are burial places on the grounds of these schools. Children might be buried in local churchyard or municipal cemeteries. Many may have died in hospitals or sanitoria and were buried in cemeteries associated with those facilities. There are any number of possibilities.”
There are no formal plans yet to search the grounds of the Spanish residential schools, but the Chief of Serpent River First Nation, Gimaa Brent Bisaillion, intends to work with his community to prepare a plan with the intention of investigating the area.
The process will take time as the First Nation must consult with band members from many communities in Ontario and Quebec.
“I think when it comes to Canada Day, we should all hang our heads low and remember what happened there. I want them to go down and find all those little children and spirits that have been haunting me for years,” said Sauve.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star