Ron Firth wasn’t sure just what he’d found. It looked like a town had suddenly vanished – abandoned buildings dotted the picturesque shore at Stirland Lake. The fridge had old, expired food inside it. In the woodshop, someone had been constructing a dollhouse but abandoned it decades ago.
It was 2008 and the Thunder Bay-based adventure motorcycle rider was following a tip from a local in Pickle Lake about a “ghost town.”
“It was like a time capsule from the mid-'80s and everyone walked away and left everything. I mean everything!” wrote Firth in a forum post about his ride. “At the same moment. On the same day. The houses are just sitting there, some have the doors wide open, everything left like it was.”
Unbeknownst to Firth at the time, he was exploring the grounds of one of the 18 residential schools in Ontario. Stirland Lake was a fly-in boys’ high school operated by the Mennonite group Northern Youth Programs from 1971 to 1991.
“It's like a time capsule, untouched, I couldn't believe it,” Firth told TVO.org in a phone interview.
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The 18 residential schools in Ontario were overseen by the federal government and run by religious groups that operated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Today many of those schools have crumbled – long since burned down or bulldozed.
Until now, the memorial effort has been piecemeal – each church was able to decide what to do with the property after closure. Many handed it over to the local First Nation. Some of those put memorials on the site, others have not yet.
A summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s full report on the residential school system was released earlier this month, and memorialization and commemoration figure prominently within its 94 recommendations. Though the facts and history are laid bare in the report, some of the sites – like Stirland Lake – are still unmarked
Soon all sites across the country will be memorialized in some way: The Assembly of First Nations is beginning to ship bronze markers designed by indigenous artists to each of the 139 residential schools in Canada, or nearby communities if the school is in a remote area. The cast bronze bands depict two braids on the outside and a series of images inside. They were designed jointly by artists Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Ursula Johnson, Marianne Nicolson, Mathew Nuqingaq and France Trépanier during a week-long artist workshop held March 2014. The markers were slated to start shipping this week.
However, many First Nations have already gone beyond that to ensure each residential school site serves as an ongoing reminder of Canada’s attempts to strip generations of indigenous children of their language and culture.
In Chapleau, Ontario, where St. John’s residential school operated from 1907 to 1948, the old site has been taken over by developers, according to Michael Cachagee, a survivor who attended the school.
“A lot of people didn't even know there was a residential school there,” says Cachagee.
The only indication that there was a residential school was a small graveyard near the site. It had no markers or fence.
“It was horrible. All the graves were unmarked – there were some little pickets and indentations in the ground. You could tell it was a cemetery or there was something buried there but there were no grave markers. There were little metal things but no cards or nothing on them to indicate who was buried there. There was no fence and the snow machines at one time were running through it,” says Cachagee.
Chapleau Cree First Nation worked to regain control over the school’s graveyard and put in a memorial on the site. They obtained some funding, built a fence around the site and installed a plaque. Mourners have come from as far as northern Quebec once word spread that their relatives were buried there. During the school’s operation, there was no commemoration of the children who were dead and buried.
“They were so hell-bent on getting our souls when we were alive, but once they buried us they forgot all about us, just walked away,” says Cachagee.
One of the most wide-reaching memorial efforts was undertaken by Richard Green and Grand Council Treaty #3, which has its administrative offices on the former site of Cecilia Jeffrey residential school in Kenora. They have built memorials at five schools: Cecilia Jeffrey, St. Mary’s in Kenora, St. Margaret’s in Couchiching First Nation, McIntosh residential school and Pelican Lake near Sioux Falls.
Some schools have turned into living memorials. Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, is now home to The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and Algoma University. The archive there is one of the largest collections of residential school history in the country, next to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Near Brantford, the former Mohawk Institute residential school has become the opposite of a residential school. Where the goal was once to extinguish native culture, the goal of Woodland Cultural Centre is to preserve and promote it. In a place where native languages were once outlawed, Amos Key Jr. and others have been working to preserve Mohawk and Cayuga tongues.
“I've been here 30 years leading that but that's always been in the back of my mind. In a way for me it's a perverse satisfaction - the same building that took it away from us and I'm here trying to champion the stabilizing of it,” says Key Jr., the acting executive director of the centre.
The centre is currently running a fundraising campaign to raise $1-million to repair the original Mohawk Institute building and convert it into a museum-quality facility where schoolchildren can go to learn about history.
“What really drives me and I keep reflecting upon is what this one former student said to me: you can't appreciate what happened when you stand in front of a plaque,” says Key Jr. “It's not just indigenous history - it's Canadian history, it's all of Ontario's history, it's all of our history, this era.”
Near Sioux Lookout, the former Pelican Lake residential school site is now home to Pelican Falls First Nations High School – an aboriginal-run facility that provides high school education for teens from far-flung reserves. It has 178 beds on-site for students who fly in from northern reserves for their education. The school is overseen by chiefs from those far-flung reserves, adding a layer of control and protection.
“It was meant for healing, that was the whole idea behind it - that site was a place of hurt and pain and trauma, so our chiefs wanted to still acknowledge the site but at the same time help our own students receive an education,” says Norma Kejick, executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council.
For survivors like Garnet Angeconeb, who attended Pelican Lake residential school from 1963 to 1969, taking back the former school grounds is an important step for reconciliation.
“Taking back the lands of where these residential schools stood - it's so symbolic,” Angeconeb says. “When I go to a site of an old residential school where there's a sweat lodge, which is symbolic of cleansing. Back in the day when the residential school was in operation we would have never seen that. In many ways that is a return to our way of life that got disrupted. It is a return to our old ways.
“Culture is a good medicine in terms of restoring our pride as a people.”
On Monday, June 22, The Agenda with Steve Paikin features an episode on issues around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.