Cultural Innovation through Education

The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre

Canada’s residential schools era was a dark and tragic period of the nation’s history. Sadly, its legacy is just beginning to be addressed…

From the late 1800s through to 1996 when the doors of the last residential school were closed, an estimated 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their homes and communities and placed in residential schools. The Canadian government took responsibility for their care and education, giving them what was believed to be the best chance for successful and productive lives by teaching them the English (or French) language and the dominant religion, customs and culture, in place of their own.

These church administered schools, originally called industrial schools and later Indian Residential Schools (IRS), were funded by the Department of Indian Affairs with the intention of taking the “Indian out of the child”. The process of cultural assimilation and substitution was expected to diminish, and eventually extinguish, the way of life of Canada’s first peoples within a few generations.

The schools were never properly resourced, staffed or managed. Inadequate funding meant overcrowding, malnutrition and substandard living conditions. Strict discipline for religious conversion by churches meant that almost all children suffered emotional and mental trauma. Many children were also subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Many died in the schools, their families often not notified. Instructed to make their way in the white world, most of those who survived the system never returned home. Those who did often felt they no longer belonged.

This, however, was not what the great Ojibway Chief Shingwauk (1773-1854) and his followers sought when they championed “Teaching Wigwams” for their people. At a time when Aboriginal peoples across North America threatened to resist European settlement, Chief Shingwauk sought to understand the new people and their ways to secure a sustainable future for all parties, based upon mutual understanding and reciprocity.

In 1832, Chief Shingwauk travelled with his son Augustine and two band members to York to meet with Governor Colborne and request teachers for his people. A young Anglican missionary, William McMurray, was sent to Sault Ste. Marie and the first “Teaching Wigwam”, St. John’s Mission to the Ojibway, opened in 1833. Study and synthesis of traditional Ojibway and European understandings and ways provided the essential foundations.

In 1872-73, with a new missionary teacher, Rev. E.F. Wilson as natural helper and partner to the cause, Chief Augustine Shingwauk toured Toronto and Southwestern Ontario, and his younger brother Chief Buhkwujjenene toured England for funds. In their speeches, the Shingwauk brothers showed their appreciation for the Queen’s Church, citing that it satisfied their religious needs, but explained that more formal education was needed for modern community development so they too could become a powerful nation. They wanted more teachers sent and a big teaching wigwam built, “where children from the Great Chippeway Lake would be received and clothed, and fed, and taught how to read and how to write; and also how to farm and build houses, and make clothing; so that by and by they might go back and teach their own people.”

In 1873, the school was renewed a third time, now in the form of an industrial boarding school equipped to accommodate 40 pupils. It burned to the ground six days later and news of its demise spread swiftly. Funds quickly poured in and a new Shingwauk Industrial Home was built on 100 acres on the St. Mary’s River shore in Sault Ste. Marie. It accommodated 60 pupils with separate dormitories for the boys and the girls.

Under Wilson and his wife Fanny’s direction, students at Shingwauk gained a solid academic and technical education. But through the 1880s, Wilson’s extensive experiences allowed him to see that policies of cultural assimilation would not work. When, as an alternative, he advocated for the retention of Indian languages, culture and communities, and the establishment of Indian self-governance, his ideas were rejected and he was forced to resign in 1893. Under his successors the school fell into the same squalid conditions and crisis of morale and confidence that plagued the rest of the system.

In 1934, the government improved regulations regarding standards in the schools, citing poor physical, nutritional and health conditions, and in 1935 a new Shingwauk Indian Residential School, equipped to house 140 pupils, was built.

By the 1950s, government policies changed again with the integration of Aboriginal students into non-Aboriginal educational systems. A new high school and elementary school were built on the Shingwauk site, while the main Hall served as a boarding home until it was closed by the Department in 1970. It was then that a group of former students and community members founded the Keewatinung Anishinaabe Institute, aimed at achieving the school’s founding intent by transforming it into an Indian-operated cultural and educational centre. At this time, Algoma University College (AUC) was also interested in utilizing the space.

Representatives of the two groups met and formed an association to share the space, and in 1971 relocated to the historic site. Almost immediately the relationship became strained, and in 1975 the Anglican Church, as trustee of the site, sold 34 acres and Shingwauk Hall to the College, and the Institute was evicted.

Concerned over these increasingly strained relationships, a cross-cultural Native People’s Group was formed in 1976 to restore the Indian presence to the site, and from it The Shingwauk Project was founded in 1979, to research the history of the site, provide cross-cultural education, and be a hub for the growing network of residential school survivors, their families and communities.

One of the founding members of the Keewatinung Institute, Shingwauk Alumnus and grandson to Chief Shingwauk, Elder Dan Pine Sr. (1900-1992) aptly advised: “The School never closed. It just entered a new phase of development. It has to put back what it took away. It has to be given a chance to finish what it started. It will be the people who went to the School that will care. Bring them together. Let them gather and they will know what to do.”

In 1981, the first of nine Shingwauk Reunions and Residential School Gatherings was held for former students, staff and families of the Shingwauk and other Schools to re-establish relationships and begin the healing and restoration process. Recent gatherings in 2012 and 2013 have been conferences as well, with the theme of “Healing and Reconciliation through Education”.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Aboriginal People on behalf of all Canadians for Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Policy. One week later, Algoma University was granted its Charter as Ontario’s 19th university. As a new university but one of Canada’s oldest schools, with a unique heritage and vision to fulfill, it was established with a ‘special mission’ to provide cross-cultural education for, and between, Aboriginal and other communities.

In 2011, the Shingwauk Project became the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC). As a cross cultural education and research centre, it is based on a partnership of Algoma University (AU) and its Arthur A. Wishart Library, the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA), and the National Residential Schools Survivors Society (NRSSS), and is governed by a joint AU/CSAA heritage committee. The Centre works with survivors, churches, educators, community groups and others, to collect, preserve and display the history of residential schools in Canada, and to create and deliver projects of “sharing, healing and learning” that address the legacy of the residential schools.

The Centre, over its many phases, has established a large and effective network and resource base, and has marked many achievements. In 2011, the CSAA and AU became the beneficiaries of the Gail Guthrie Valaskakis Memorial Resource Centre of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF), a collection of over 6,000 items.

In 2013, the SRSC and the Wishart Library received the Archives Association of Ontario 2013 Institutional Award. Immediately thereafter, they received the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Project of the Year Award for their use of technology to benefit residential school survivors and their communities, the University and their many partners.

Chief Shingwauk’s vision is alive and well. The circle of helpers continues to grow, inspiring Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike to undertake innovative projects of “sharing, healing and learning” so that harmony and wellbeing within and among all people, and all their relations, will be realized.