Shingwauk: A reunion with a difference

Published October 1, 2002

Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
In some ways, the fifth reunion of former students of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, held here in August, was like any school reunion: grey-haired adults looking up classroom buddies, exchanges of where-are-you-now and remember-when-we-did-that-then.

Signs that it would be different came early.

A native speaker at the opening ceremony was so overcome with emotion that he couldn?t continue. Some memories were so painful that healing circles were held where, assured of privacy and empathy, men and women spoke of sexual molestation, feeling ashamed of their native culture, being deprived of family love, struggling with drugs and alcohol in later life. Some survivors attended a session on filing lawsuits against the federal government and the Anglican Church of Canada for damages.

Other graduates came for happier reasons: for some, the school was a haven from a troubled home life; others were grateful for an education that they then carried into the working world. Some made lifelong friends.

The Anglican church’s aboriginal healing fund, which receives contributions from Anglicans across the country, has donated $38,400 to support the Shingwauk reunions. The 10-year-old fund supports therapeutic and counselling projects aimed at helping native Canadians cope with experiences in an often-harsh boarding school system that existed from the mid-19th century to the second half of the 20th century.

The most pertinent question to ask at a gathering like the Shingwauk reunion is simply “Is healing taking place?”

About 240 people from 40 first nations attended this year?s gathering in the gabled, red-brick building that housed the school on the shore of the St. Mary?s River, just east of downtown Sault Ste. Marie.

Built in 1934 to replace the first Shingwauk school (1874), it is now Algoma University College, part of Laurentian University. The school was named after a visionary 18th century Ojibway leader, Chief Shingwauk (1773-1854), who worked with British and church authorities to establish schools for Indian children. A small church and mission school was opened in Sault Ste. Marie in 1833.

His sons formed a partnership with an English clergyman named Edward Francis Wilson (1844-1915), who came to Sault Ste. Marie and became the first principal of an expanded Shingwauk school in 1873. Over the next 20 years, Mr. Wilson moved from supporting complete assimilation for aboriginals to the idea that they were entitled to self-determination and the preservation of their languages and culture. His changing views caused increased conflict with his superiors and he resigned as principal of Shingwauk in 1893.

Reminiscences by former students and staff indicate that Chief Shingwauk?s idea of cross-cultural learning did not survive and the school became a typical white-run institution that damaged native culture as part of the education process. Shingwauk closed in 1970.

At this summer?s reunion, the fifth such gathering, healing began with a sacred fire in a small circle behind the school.

On each of the four days of the reunion in August, the sacred fire saw a sunrise ceremony that honoured aspects of native culture and language formerly forbidden at the Christian school: the burning of sweetgrass and tobacco, prayers to the Creator and the four directions.

Those elements of culture came inside the building one morning during one of the healing circles as leaders Saul Day and Elsie Kwandibens, First Nations counsellors from the Biidaaban Holistic Healing Centre in Heron Bay, Ont., began the session by burning wild sage. Each of the dozen people in the circle fanned the smoke over head and shoulders in a purifying ritual called smudging. An eagle feather was passed from hand to hand, giving each person the floor.

Under the rules of the healing circle, participants are assured of privacy, but some later shared their stories with the Journal. Alfred “Sonny” Ojeebah wept as he told of being sexually molested by a principal at Shingwauk.

A woman told the circle that her sister died in a car accident while at the school. She later came to get more information and said she has some good memories of Shingwauk, including of a supervisor “who was like a mother to us.”

Another man stood holding the eagle feather and wept, unable to speak for a few minutes. Ms. Kwandibens burned more wild sage and wafted the smoke over him, saying quietly, “We’re in control here.” He related memories of physical abuse at three residential schools.

Later, Mr. Ojeebah, who is Oji-Cree and a member of Brunswick House First Nation in Chapleau, Ont., said he arrived at Shingwauk at the age of 6.

His school experience led to alcohol abuse, he said. “I’ve thought of suicide many times.”

But he quit drinking in 1988 and is now an economic development officer with the Brunswick House band.

He does not hate the church, he added. “The primate’s apology still hangs on my wall. I never gave up my faith in Jesus.” Mr. Ojeebah said that attending his first Shingwauk reunion has contributed to a sense of healing. ‘Now I feel that I am not alone,” he said.

Former Shingwauk student Bill Pine identified the same principal (now deceased) mentioned by Mr. Ojeebah as a sexual abuser. A descendant of Chief Shingwauk, whose name meant “The Pine,” Mr. Pine brought his 10-year-old son, Derek, who attends a local public school, to the reunion.

Like Mr. Ojeebah, Mr. Pine said he drank heavily after leaving school and also said this was the first time he could bring himself to return to Shingwauk.

“I made some good friends here,” he said. His healing began with a counsellor in town. Now, he no longer drinks and holds a steady job as a maintenance man at a hotel in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

For Wilma Laline, from the Walpole Island reserve in Ontario, Shingwauk was a sanctuary to which she returns to see friends.

“I was 14 when I came here. I loved it. I was treated very well. We had three meals a day here and I had a bed to myself for the first time in my life. We didn’t have that at home. We were poor. I would never have gotten an education if it wasn’t for this place.”

Isabelle Odam-Jones, who arrived at Shingwauk in 1933 from the Oka reserve near Montreal, was called “white trash” by fellow students since she is of mixed race and light-skinned. She recalled that she had her “bloomers taken down more than once” by staff administering punishment. But she also remembers Shingwauk as a haven from an abusive life on the reserve and she has no interest in joining a lawsuit. “I learned to be ambitious, to be independent and self-sufficient,” she said.

Now retired from a nursing career, she said she remembers fondly three staff people who cared for her, but another one who was particularly nasty. Her healing took place, she said, when she looked this woman up and had lunch with her. “Silently, I forgave her and I thought, ‘Why did I hate you so much?'”

Michael Cachagee, political assistant with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Thunder Bay, Ont., said 500 former Shingwauk students have signed retainer forms with lawyers, the first step to filing lawsuits.

Several suits naming the diocese of Algoma, the federal government and the Anglican Church of Canada are already before the courts.

Co-chair of the Shingwauk alumni association, Mr. Cachagee defends compensatory damages for abuse suffered at the school as a right for any former student. “They (school administrators) devastated our communities. There are damages attached to that, to the destruction of a culture,” he said.

Although their experiences may have been difficult, many former Shingwauk students are involved with church.

Mr. Cachagee attended an interfaith service at the chapel on the Shingwauk grounds named for the first bishop of Algoma, Frederick Fauquier.

Healing is taking place at Shingwauk, conceded former student Shirley Horn. But “it’s going to be a long journey because it was a long journey to get here.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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