What you may not know about Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie

·4 min read
The Shingwauk Indian Residential School, shown around 1965, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Dozens of people, including 72 students, are said to be buried on the grounds. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University - image credit)
The Shingwauk Indian Residential School, shown around 1965, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Dozens of people, including 72 students, are said to be buried on the grounds. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

As calls grow for further investigation into the residential school system, a researcher and the son of a survivor of a former school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., describe how students were robbed of their dignity and felt the effects long after it closed in 1970.

"I think it's a moment that's calling Canadians of all ages to learn about all residential schools — learn about the ones close to you, learn about the residential school system, learn about ongoing colonialism in Canada," said Krista McCracken, interim director of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University.

University officials have said they will plan a search of the grounds where the Shingwauk Indian Residential School once operated, in light of the recent news that about 215 bodies of children were buried in the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

Jay Jones, president of Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, is the son of Susie Jones, a survivor of the school.

"She knew right away what she had to do in order to survive," he said. "And when I say survive, that means survival in every sense of the word."

Operated from 1874 to 1970, Shingwauk was run by the Anglican Church of Canada and took in students from areas including Sarnia, James Bay Coast, northern Quebec and the United States.

Children taken 'forcibly'

According to McCracken, the residential school system was developed by the federal government, but 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church, with the others overseen by Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United churches.

"It really was designed to take away the culture, language and history of Indigenous people in this land," they said.

"Students were taken from their families, sometimes forcibly, but parents didn't have a choice whether or not their children went."

McCracken said it was written into the law that parents could lose their treaty rights, be fined or put in jail if they refused to allow their children to attend a residential school. Some students did not see their parents for years, McCracken said.

Jones recalled the story of how his mother was taken to the Shingwauk school when she was four years old.

"She's playing in the front yard along with her brother, and a car pulls up and two men walk out of the car. One grabs my mom and one grabs her brother. They put them in the car and drive away."

Jones's mother, Susie, and her brothers Leo and Leonard were brought to the school in 1941. Once there, Susie was separated from her brothers and did not see her mother for four years.

According to Jones, his mother assimilated very quickly, but Leo died at the age of eight while at school.

"They don't know what form it was. On the death certificate it just says, 'he expired.'"

Jones believes his uncle died due to his appendix bursting, adding: "Bottom line is, he's buried there in Shingwauk Indian Residential school."

'Find some forgiveness'

According to McCracken, at least 72 children, some as young as five years old, died at Shingwauk school and have been buried in its cemetery.

In light of recent calls by former senator Murray Sinclair, for an inquiry, and as the RCMP investigates the former B.C. residential school site, Jones wants to see an independent investigation into the Shingwauk school.

"I've heard first hand where the elders have said they've had to dig graves for their fellow students and they've had to do things, that they've had to wrap them up — they've had to put them in the ground and stuff like that."

Algoma University says it will take every measure to complete a search on its grounds.

"They went through things that no child should ever have to go through. And the biggest thing that was lacking in their lives was parental nurturing," said Jones.

"I think if everybody recognizes that and they find out the truth, they have to find some forgiveness, no matter how small it is or who it is with, they'll find some forgiveness and then we can all reconcile."

Listen here for more.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.