That’s my grandfather!’

Published September 1, 2009

A PICTURE TELLS A THOUSAND WORDS: St. Philip’s residential school students, L-R: Annie Kanatewat-Chewanish, Elizabeth Washipabano, Janie Pisinaquan-Sam, Clara Spencer-Napash, Emma Snowboy-Napash.

FOR TWO-AND-a-half years, the photographs sat on Dean Bob Osborne’s desk gathering dust.

Mr. Osborne was going to donate them to the General Synod archives. The photographs documented life in the 1950s at St. Philip’s, an Anglican-run Indian residential school in Fort George, Que. They had been part of the estate of his sister, Sherolyn, who died in a car accident in 1957. Fresh out of high school, Ms. Osborne had worked at St. Philip’s and left after a year, taking memories of the native children she had photographed there.

“I was aware that they (photographs) might be useful through the archives of the national office for residential school survivors to prove that they attended residential schools,” said Mr. Osborne.
(The Anglican Church of Canada’s archive in Toronto has forwarded thousands of names of former residential school students to Ottawa, which has helped them in applying for the Common Experience Payment, a compensation component of the revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). The IRSSA was signed in 2006 by the federal government, churches that ran residential schools and representatives of former students.)

Yet for some reason he couldn’t fathom, Mr. Osborne-who is rector of St. John’s Cathedral in Winnipeg and dean of the diocese of Rupert’s Land-held on to the photographs.

Early this year, at the request of his bishop, Don Philips, Mr. Osborne and the cathedral hosted a group of clergy and lay leaders from Chisasibi First Nation, one of the Cree communities in the James Bay region of Northern Quebec.

Mr. Osborne told Douglas McNaughton, a pastor in that group, that he had photographs his sister had taken when she worked at St. Philip’s. Mr. McNaughton responded by saying that some of the people at the gathering had been residential school students there.

After the service, Mr. Osborne rushed home, got the photographs, and laid them out on a table during refreshment break back at the cathedral. “Lo and behold, a number of people saw themselves in these pictures. And so it was a kind of kairos moment,” recalled Mr. Osborne, his voice breaking. They’d never expected to find a connection at St. John’s Cathedral in Winnipeg with where they had come from, he said.

Some former students recognized the wife of one of the priests at the gathering. Another woman exclaimed, “That’s my grandfather!”

For Mr. Osborne, it was a bittersweet experience that brought back a flood of memories about his sister. “I was seven years old when she was killed,” he said.

Some former students remembered how kind and caring his sister was, recalls Mr. Osborne. “That hits you like a ton of bricks.”

Finally, Mr. Osborne realized why he hadn’t been able to part with the photographs. “Every time I opened that drawer there would be a twinge of guilt that I hadn’t shipped these pictures, then this. God is in this…waiting for this moment to happen.”

Mr. Osborne has made copies of the photographs for his family and the congregation of Chisasibi; he has donated the originals to the archives, along with a photo of his sister and an biography. The Chisasibi congregation has been identifing other people in the photos, and there are plans to include the collection in a local museum.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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