Two boys drowned at Shingwauk residential school. Who were they?

More than a century ago, two residential-school students died near the institution in Sault Ste. Marie. Now researchers and survivors are trying to discover their identities
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Oct 13, 2020
The Anglican Church and Canadian government operated Shingwauk Indian Residential School from 1873 until 1970. (Courtesy of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)

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Sometime in 1914 or 1915, two residential-school students drowned in a large pond near Shingwauk Indian Residential School, in Sault Ste. Marie. The Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, a grassroots community-based group whose mission is to provide for the well-being of residential school alumni, wants to find out who they were.

“There was a pond in the back of the school … and the kids were playing there. Some say it was a quicksand type of pond,” says Irene Barbeau, vice-president and founding member of the association. “I guess the boys were playing there, and one of them fell in, and the other one tried to rescue [him]. They both drowned in that pond.”

The pond has since been filled in, and the site is now home to the city’s Snowdon Park. The boys’ bodies were never recovered.

“They never did identify the names of the students,” says Barbeau, adding that the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association would like to commemorate the boys’ lives by erecting a monument on the site.

Edward Sadowski, a researcher who has worked with the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association for more than two decades, slowly pieced together the story of the two boys using interviews and other documents from the Shingwauk Indian Residential School Centre archive at Algoma University.

From 1995 to 2012, Sadowski was the archives and research coordinator for the Shingwauk Project — today known as the Shingwauk Residential School Centre — which is operated through a partnership between the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and Algoma University (which sits on the former Shingwauk Indian Residential School site).

a group of children on the steps of a school
Students outside the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, in Sault Ste. Marie, in 1955. (Courtesy of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)

The Anglican Church and Canadian government operated Shingwauk Indian Residential School from 1873 until 1970. In 1981, the residential school’s former students gathered in Sault Ste. Marie for the first of many reunions, sharing stories and photographs and renewing old friendships.

In the early ’90s, while preparing for an upcoming reunion, Sadowski was reviewing videotapes from the first one and heard Margaret Mclean, a former staff member at Shingwauk, tell the story of the two boys: she said her father, also a former staff member, had witnessed the incident and tried, without success, to reach the boys using a 30-foot pole.

It was a story that “always stuck in the back of my mind,” says Sadowski, who, at the time, was busy with the Shingwauk Project. “I was interested in trying to find more information about that. I was trying to get the archives and the research centre organized, collecting and documenting all the information and meeting with former students.”

The Shingwauk Residential School Centre archive collection began in 1981 with the donation of photographs, documents, and recorded conversations from the inaugural reunion. The archive has since grown and now houses more than “90 distinct archival collections of varying size,” says researcher and curator Krista McCracken. The pieces — including administrative records and correspondence — have been submitted by residential-school survivors, staff, and church organizations. For many survivors, the archives are “about truth telling,” says McCracken.

In 2005, survivors and their families began reaching out to Sadowski for help after having been denied compensation under the advanced-payment program, a precursor to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement that was designed for very sick or elderly survivors. (The IRSSA, the largest class-action settlement in Canada to date, recognizes the mental, physical, and sexual abuse faced by Indigenous students forced to attend federally run residential schools.)

“Many of those survivors complained they were being denied their advanced payment because the government had no records to prove that they were there,” says Sadowski. According to documents he obtained in 2013 through an Access to Information and Privacy request, out of more than 105,000 survivors who filed for compensation under the Common Experience Payment — one component of the IRSSA — more than 51,000 applications were denied, in full or in part, because the student’s attendance at a residential school could not be confirmed.

a hallways with exhibits
An exhibit at the Shingwauk Indian Residential School Centre archive at Algoma University. (Courtesy of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)

One such survivor was Angus Abram, who had attended Shingwauk Indian Residential School in 1915. In 2006, Abram’s daughter, Renee Abram, sought out Sadowski’s help in finding documents to support her father’s claim. “My [grand]father is now 97 years-old, and while he is still in fairly good health, as you can imagine, time is [at] a premium, and any assistance you can offer would be appreciated,” she wrote.

“So I started digging around for Angus,” says Sadowski, who was able to find a photograph of Angus from his time at Shingwauk. However, according to Sadowski, the government would not accept photographs as evidence of Angus’s attendance “since they were not dated or there was no provenance to those photographs.”

Eventually, Sadowski was able to find Abram’s name in a journal kept by the Anglican Church. The document confirmed his attendance at Shingwauk; in the end, he received acknowledgment of his experience as a residential-school survivor and compensation through CEP, under which students were eligible to receive $10,000 for their first year at a residential school and $3,000 for each additional year. (Sadowski estimates that, over the course of his two decades of work, he found records to support “well over 1,000” IRSSA applications.)

While researching Abram’s case, Sadowksi reviewed a videotape from the 1981 reunion in which he confirmed much of what Mclean had said, indicating that he had seen someone use a 30- to 40-foot pole to “try to find bottom.”

Sadowski says he just wants answers: “This is our initiative right now — trying to find out who those two guys are.”

The Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association is hoping to draw attention to the story of the two boys in hopes that someone will remember the incident or who they were. But so far, there’s been nothing. “It would be nice to find the names,” says Barbeau.

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