Why an Ontario university is turning a former residential school into a museum

A new permanent exhibition at Algoma University commemorates the dark history of Shingwauk Indian Residential School
By Claude Sharma - Published on Aug 23, 2018
Shirley Roach, a survivor of Shingwauk Indian Residential School, encounters her own portrait at an exhibition chronicling the history of the school. (Claude Sharma)



SAULT STE. MARIE — In 1947, police officers took Shirley Roach, then eight years old, from her home at the First Nations community of Garden River, near Sault Ste. Marie, to Shingwauk Indian Residential School, a few kilometres away.

Roach, now 80, doesn’t remember being told why she’d been taken there. She does recall the imposing brown doors, and entering them for the first time, petrified, with her brother Marvin.

“That was the beginning of my terrifying life living here,” says Roach, who for eight years was physically, mentally, spiritually, and sexually abused by staff.

Today the big brown doors remain in place, but the building has been repurposed and renamed: it is now Shingwauk Hall, part of Algoma University. As of this month, it features a permanent museum display commemorating what happened at the site. It’s the first time a former residential school building in Canada has housed a major, permanent memorial to its past.

The exhibition, Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall, consists of photographs and text chronicling more than a century of history. It includes the story of Shingwauk Indian Residential School, as well as those of a nearby all-girls residential school called Wawanosh and a local Anglican mission school that predated both.

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Shingwauk Indian Residential School closed down in 1970. Algoma University College (as it was then known) acquired the building the next year.

The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, a partnership between the university and the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, received federal funding in 2012 to create and mount the display that now lines the corridors. Survivors worked with curators Jonathan Dewar, Trina Cooper-Bolam, and Jeff Thomas to assemble and organize archival material into three thematic galleries.

The launch event earlier this month drew dozens of survivors, including Roach, who said she hoped the display would shed light on a dark period in Canada’s history: “I just hope for the people that don't know anything or refuse to know anything, this teaches them about residential schools.”

Shingwauk was originally founded as a place for children to learn, not as a place of assimilation and abuse. Its namesake was an Ojibway chief and warrior: Chief Shingwauk (1773–1854), who had conceived of a “teaching wigwam” that would give his people a chance to learn English while maintaining their own language and culture. His sons fulfilled that vision by opening the first iteration of Shingwauk School, in 1873.

As the residential school system grew in the early 20th century, the federal government and Anglican Church made Shingwauk a part of it. Starting around 1900, workers at the school carried out assimilationist policies that amounted to cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples, according to Krista McCracken, researcher and curator for the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.

Over the next seven decades, government officials and school staff (including clergy) took photos for promotional purposes. They used them in annual reports and their own personal scrapbooks. In the 1980s, survivors started collecting the images and other materials that form the basis of Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall.

In some of the images, children smile, masking what was really taking place at the school. “The images that we're seeing are often quite staged and might not [reflect] how everybody experienced residential school,” McCracken said. “When we bring visitors through, that's something that we're definitely talking about.”

The second phase of the project, set to open next year, will incorporate physical artifacts that tell the story of Shingwauk Indian Residential School. For example, “survivors might feel it is important to include a desk,” McCracken said, “in which case, we would ask for their memories around what that desk might have represented in their daily life.” 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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