Exhibit ‘reclaims’ residential school for survivors

The school's alumni association felt it was important to highlight survivor resilience in the exhibit, says curator Krista McCracken. “It’s really meaningful to see that come to life.” Photo: Meaghan Kent
Published January 8, 2019

Shingwauk Hall has changed since 1963, the year Irene Barbeau graduated. In the intervening years, what was once the Anglican-run Shingwauk Indian Residential School has become part of the campus of Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., its dormitories converted into classrooms and offices.

As of summer 2018, another change has taken place. The third floor of the building, where Barbeau lived more than 50 years ago while attending residential school, has been converted into space that houses a permanent exhibit called Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall.

Barbeau is vice-president of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA), which has been holding reunions in the former school since 1981. On August 3, she attended the launch of the new exhibit.

“[Even] when you’re not physically abused in any way, you still feel the impacts of being raised in an institution,” says former Shingwauk Hall student Irene Barbeau. Photo: Meaghan Kent

“It’s very important that Canadians at large know the dark history of Canada,” says Barbeau. “This is one way of doing it, by reclaiming the building itself.”

The exhibit is the work of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, an archive that is a joint initiative of Algoma University and the CSAA. Consultation for the exhibit started in 2012, spurred by the CSAA’s desire for a commemorative space inside the building, says exhibit curator Krista McCracken.

The school ran for decades under the residential school system and deviated from the vision of its namesake, Chief Shingwauk. When it shut down in 1970, the property reverted to the diocese of Algoma. Through agreements between then-fledgling Algoma University, Indigenous-run Keewatinung Institute and the church, a public trust was set up to ensure co-operation in the use of the site. The building is now held in trust by a board that includes representatives from the CSAA, Garden River First Nation, Batchewana First Nation and the Anglican diocese of Algoma.

The process of curating the new exhibit largely involved consultation with survivors to determine what they wanted to see in the exhibit. Among the topics the CSAA felt it was important to highlight, McCracken says, was survivor resilience. “That’s something that’s been talked about in various iterations for decades on this site. It’s really meaningful to see that come to life.”

The bulk of the exhibit is photographs and text, including digital photo frames with a rotating selection of photos. The curators relied on the archival images collected by the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, says McCracken, as well as the Anglican General Synod Archives.

One gallery showcases the day-to-day lives of children at the school through archival photographs dating from 1874 to 1970. Photo: General Synod Archives

There are three main gallery spaces. The first focuses on the history of the site and the original vision Chief Shingwauk (1773–1854) had for the school. The beginnings of Shingwauk Hall date back to 1832, when what was then the Anglican province of Upper Canada established a mission at Sault Ste. Marie. A combined schoolhouse and church (called a “teaching wigwam”) was built, based on Shingwauk’s idea of cross-cultural education as the ground for Indigenous self-determination.

The second gallery showcases the day-to-day experience of students at the school, with photographs from 1874 to 1970. In this gallery, alumni wanted to explore topics like the half-day school and work program the school used to run, and the different experiences for girls and boys at residential school, McCracken says.

The third gallery celebrates “the resilience of the survivor community” as well as “current Ashinaabe student success” at Algoma University, says McCracken.

By the time Barbeau was at Shingwauk, students attended local high schools, but boarded at Shingwauk Hall. Barbeau, who grew up in small reserves around the eastern side of James Bay, left her home and family at age nine to attend school in Moose Factory, Ont.

Her father, an Anglican priest, insisted his children get an education. “He knew that the way to survive in the coming years was through education,” Barbeau says. Residential school was the only option available, and where a child was placed was decided by their family’s religious affiliation, rather than geographical location, she says.

As a result, like many, Barbeau was moved far away from her family and community.

“I was not emotionally abused, or sexually, but there still was impact from the separation from your family, and your siblings, and your community,” says Barbeau. “Aunts and uncles and grandparents…[Even] when you’re not physically abused in any way, you still feel the impacts of being raised in an institution.”

The story of those who survived residential school is a story of reclamation, says Don Jackson, a retired professor of law and politics at Algoma University and founding director of Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. “What they’re reclaiming is not simply their lives, their story…they’re reclaiming their communities, their land, their language.”

Shingwauk survivors Shirley Roach (left) and Shirley Horn view the exhibit. Horn is now chancellor of Algoma University. Photo: Meaghan Kent

Installing the exhibit in the hall is symbolic, he says, of “moving forward and addressing the whole colonial process…working with the settler population to create a future for Canada and perhaps the world.” This vision for the future is the same as Chief Shingwauk’s vision, he says: “a situation which will be good…for all peoples and creation.”

Trauma and place are connected, says Jackson. “We had an incident at last year’s reunion where a woman came into the building, and as she walked down a certain hallway…she couldn’t even stand. She fell to the ground. She was just hysterical. She had been assaulted there.”

The woman had immediate health support, Jackson notes, from the elders who were with her. “These are reclaiming moments,” he says.

The photographs and documents on display serve this same function, he says. “The physical, the tactile, the visual, the texture, the tangibles—these are real triggers and real evidences of a reality.”

Memories of what happened to many residential school students are denied by some, or repressed. Tangible items like photographs and documents, he says, serve as proof.

“People come and they see the evidence of their own childhood that they may be denying, they may be very troubled by, they may be very ambivalent about,” says Jackson.

“How many tens of thousands, if not a hundred thousand or more, Aboriginal people didn’t have pictures of themselves as children? Think of their memory, when they’re told to forget who they are and take on another memory.”

Today, Barbeau is still active in the Anglican church. She worships at Good Shepherd, Barrhaven in the diocese of Ottawa. Her commitment to the church, instilled in her by her father, hasn’t wavered despite the impacts of the residential school system.

“I grew up in a Christian home. My teaching as a young person was that you must forgive people if they do wrong to you, right? That was an example that my parents set for us,” she says.

“I did have to go through my healing process where I did have to forgive the system that put me there, but also I never blamed my parents. They did what they knew best at the time with what was available.”

More than 300 people passed through the Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall exhibition during its opening weekend, McCracken says, and the response of the local community has been very favourable. But the best response has been from the survivors.

“For me, seeing the unveiling and seeing some of the survivors who worked closely on this project and have been working on it since 2012—but then seeing their faces light up, and seeing that realization that it was actually coming into fruition was so powerful,” McCracken says.

The exhibition hall is the first in a multi-phase plan for the site. McCracken says funding has already been secured for the next phase, the conversion of the vestibule of the building’s auditorium to gallery space that tells the story of residential schools through objects and artifacts. It is set to open in 2019.

Plans for future phases include the conversion of the auditorium itself into exhibition space, and the setting up of exterior installations on the building’s grounds.

This article first appeared on November 8, 2018.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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