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Visit and learn about residential schools because there can be no reconcilliation without truth

This story centres on previous interviews with an author who wrote a compelling book on one of the Indian residential schools, as they were called, along with thoughts from other Indigenous community leaders and a residential school survivor

Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process. Please listen.

When you walk around the wrought iron fence and through to the cemetery on the side of the hill you see steel stakes with grey metallic tags of the unknown, the sheen has gone but the numbers are very discernible.

You were not even an “Indian,” you were a number. The trees make for a sombre place, the adjacent railway may remind you of the story and lonely death of Chanie Wenjack. Look up you can’t see the highway. The graves were purposely placed not to be seen, you will see the truth and why reconciliation takes time.

Bill McLeod is waning, he is in palliative care. He is the author of several regional history books including St. John’s (Anglican) Residential Schools, Chapleau, Ontario - 1907 to 1948.

His wife Sheryl said to me "I know he would be so vocal about all going on in Kamloops…and across the county… you can add what you think would be appropriate." 

I have spoken with Bill many times on this matter and I have authored many stories on residential schools and indigenous culture linked to nature.

He says on page 261, “…I am quite certain that all of these burials were at a cemetery on the grounds of the first Chapleau school, of which there is now no trace…” We are listening.

The Chapleau Indian Boarding School was one of 139 Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Children were taken from their families and sent to these schools in order to strip them of their culture and identity and assimilate them into Euro-American society.

Bill’s book begins with a chapter on Rev. George and Mary Vincent Prewer. Prewer was the principal from 1913 to 1923.

“He was, to put it bluntly, evil personified and his wife was not much better," reads St. John’s (Anglican) Residential Schools, Chapleau, Ontario - 1907 to 1948

The pupils, who were brought from as far away as Northern Quebec and Southern Ontario, were ill-fed, ill-shod, ill-clothed and beaten for the most trivial of offences.

They spent only about eight hours a week in the classroom as opposed to the normal twenty-seven and a half hours in Ontario elementary schools. More time was spent shoving religion down their throats than learning the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

There were two schools.

The first operated between 1907 and 1921 and the second from 1921 to 1948.

To provide some context, McLeod pens an extensive chapter on child abuse in the Chapleau Public School. 

“Nothing was done about some dreadfully sadistic teachers and the author suggests that, if the community leaders tolerated this behaviour in their (mostly) lily-white, (mostly) Protestant public school, it would hardly be expected that they would question what went on at the residential school.”

The schools were run by the Anglican Church.

“Six bad Anglican bishops, three of whom were out-and-out racists and four who ignored the abuse of the children,” the author writes.

Context

Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin said during her tenure described Canada’s aboriginal policies in the 19th and 20th centuries as “cultural genocide,” making her one of the highest-ranking Canadian officials to call it such.

This includes the seemingly unbelievable story of residential schools, children were taken from their families and sent to these schools in order to strip them of their culture and identity and assimilate them into Euro-American society.

The story of Ontario's forgotten residential school students is largely a Northern Ontario one. Of 18 residential schools in the province, only two were in the south. There were two schools in Chapleau with only a commemorative cemetery as a reminder of a tragic story.

Two Schools

The St. John's Indian Residential School, also known as the Chapleau Indian Boarding School, was a Canadian Indian Residential School operated by the Anglican Church of Canada from 1907 to 1948.

Students attended the school in Chapleau from 1907 until 1921 when a new school, St. John's Indian School, was opened on the southwest outskirts of town. That school was closed in 1948.

Chapleau was an important railway centre on the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway, which was completed 20 years earlier. Work commenced in August 1906 and the school building was opened in January 1907.

The residential school property comprised 153 acres, situated on the east side of Chapleau and fronting on the Nebskwashi River. Enrolment soon stretched the capacity of the school, ultimately forcing Church administrators to search for a larger, more suitable site to erect an entirely new building.

By 1920, a large tract of land had been acquired south of the town. It totalled 2,142 acres and straddled the CPR and the main road running south to Lake Huron (later King’s Highways 129 and 101). Here the larger school was constructed in 1921. A small portion of the extensive lands was cleared for cultivation but the remaining forested area was used as a source of wood fuel for the school until its closure in 1948.

Students were drawn from a large area within the Diocese of Moosonee, extending from Fort Albany on James Bay in the north to the Fort Francis Reserve in Quebec in the east to the Six Nations Reserve in the south, and to Nipigon on the CPR mainline in the west.

Most were Ojibway and Woodland Cree from the northern communities. In later years, and especially the period following the school’s closing, many children from the most distant of these native settlements were sent to other residential schools, such as the newly built Shingwauk school in Sault Ste. Marie.

Unaccounted Deaths

Of 426 Ontario Indian residential school students known to have died from 1867 to 2000, 38 per cent have been forgotten by history. Data contained in the final report of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission show that neither government nor school officials bothered to record the names of 162 of the deceased Ontario students, the rest are only a series of numbers.

And Justice Murray Sinclair, the former Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission suspects the number of deaths is actually much higher, because of poor record-keeping and destroyed or withheld documents,

"There are significant limitations in both the quality and quantity of the data the commission has been able to compile on residential school deaths," Sinclair writes.

More than 150,000 children were taken from their homes, suffering sexual and physical abuse and dying by the thousands from diseases such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis.

No one knows for certain how many died, but in his report, Justice Sinclair estimates up to 6,000 children died not including the unknown number who were sent home and died shortly thereafter. 

The message is loud and clear.

Thoughts

George Couchie is the author of Raised on an Eagle Feather. 

The retired OPP Sergeant was the police’s lead native awareness trainer and now has spent years working with Indigenous youth and community groups on cultural awareness.

He has received many deserved accolades for his ongoing Indigenous awareness training. A resident of Nipissing First Nation, he agrees the number of students who died in residential schools is much higher than is reported.

He said the cemeteries most often associated with residential schools are "out of sight and out of mind." Often he said these cemeteries were known as "junkyards” and "it is important we not forget the long-term impacts of residential schools on Aboriginal communities. My father came back from residential school, a broken man.”

He has visited the Chapleau cemetery. Learn more about George by clicking here.

Dr. Jonathan Pitt is a knowledge keeper or land-as-teacher through his Indigenous background. Cultural transmission is part of his research and the courses he teaches at Nipissing University.

Pitt wrote the following on this issue.

As we often hear in Anishinaabe culture, our Ancestors are not really gone, they are still with us, just differently on another plane of existence beyond the physical. That is interpenetration you are feeling, calling out to your being. Even as a subtle state in our reality.

I think the biggest step is to remember the Truth in Truth and Reconciliation.

In order for Reconciliation to begin or be revitalized, the Truth must first be spoken. We have to be honest with ourselves as a country and speak Truth.

This needs to happen in the classrooms, staff rooms and at dinner tables.

Politicians will always provide lip service and avoid using words like survivor and genocide, however, what governments and institutions need to be doing now is accountability and metrics on this, Indigenous people have given enough.

The loss of children, culture, language, land, learning and identity has impacted well-being at catastrophic levels and can be seen in the indexes and measures of the government’s own statistics.

In some cases when I speak to Indigenous adults, they have no idea about their own history, only the narratives they have been schooled to learn. In my heart and mind, these articles help to raise awareness about Indigenous culture and history, filling in the gaps perhaps in what was not taught at the mainstream school.

A wise person once said: 'Learning about history will unsettle you and if history makes you proud, you are probably not learning history'.

Now we see physical evidence of mass graves, which survivors have been talking about for years; apparently, people were listening when Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 but clearly not hearing, as the governments and mainstream settler society have not moved the needle on Truth and Reconciliation since the Calls were released in 2015.

As an educator for over 20 years, I have worked within the courses I teach on topics such as the impacts of colonialism and collaborated with contributors to publish teacher resources. I see the contemporary problems rooted in history and in traditional teaching (pedagogy) in K-12 and in post-secondary.

Traditional pedagogy or the empty bucket model still leans heavily on filling the learner with knowledge through a celebratory historical narrative, which maintains the status-quo of the dominant settler culture and keeping Indigenous people oppressed.

Decolonization takes time, one of the Anishinaabemowin words I have learned is “Biskaabiiyang” meaning it describes the process one must go through in order to become decolonized, one must examine one’s teachings and worldview looking inward and around the world as well.

The verb “biskaabii” means to “return to one’s self.” We are starting to hear, Indigenous history belongs to all Canadians.

Student Recalls

Residential schools forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Aboriginal heritage and culture or to speak their own languages.

Children were severely punished if these, among other, strict rules were broken. Former students of residential schools have spoken of horrendous abuse at the hands of residential school staff: physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological.

“It is comforting to know there are still people out there who can really begin to understand and accept that a segment of Canada's history is somewhat dark and clouded,” said Mike Cachagee, in a past interview, he is a member of the Chapleau Cree First Nation and one of the founding members of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association.

He is conversant in his Cree language and has a working knowledge of Oji-Cree and Anishinaabe. Having previously attended two other Indian Residential Schools in the province he was moved to the Shingwauk Indian Residential School as a young man to attend high school in Sault Ste. Marie.

“In relation to the closing of the old St. John's Indian Residential School in Chapleau I was a student there at that time,” he said.

In all, he spent 12 and-a-half years in residential schools including Chapleau.

Mike Cachagee buried the first of four classmates when he was eight years old at St. John's. He said he was told the children died of tuberculosis.

"We can't just have our people planted in the ground and forgotten about," he said. "That's basically what they did.”

Mr. Cachagee, who once chaired the National Residential School Survivors' Society, said former students continue to want these graves identified so they can better understand their family histories.

He describes his school experience as “Not very nice. Subsequent to my exposure to residential schools, the work that I’ve been doing for the past twenty years has been working directly with survivors.”

He pointed to the irony of the Chapleau cemetery.

“Considering that the St. John’s school property along with the cemetery and those buried there were of Anglican faith and had been consecrated and blessed by that faith it was then transferred over to Chapleau Ojibwa who were about 98 per cent Roman Catholic. I often wonder if and how the church de-consecrated the lands and what ceremony did they use for those children's souls interned there?”

Video

For a good visual, spatial and contextual reference, Google Chapleau Indian Boarding School – The Discarded Children on Vimeo you will find a comprehensive video five-minute video by Angeline Castilloux, who completed a course assignment at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie.

In a past interview, she said, “I was stunned and also angry that so few people knew about it and so few people were willing to openly discuss it until very recently. I also read several reports and correspondence documenting a large number of deaths at the school during the years it was operational and also reports of abuse, neglect and forced child labour. When I started asking people about it, only those who had actively researched the school knew anything about what had occurred.” See the video here.

Bill McLeod said this video identifies the first residential school in Chapleau and its “still unknown cemetery.”

For many years the second school’s cemetery associated with the St. John's was unmarked.

The Chapleau Cree First Nation worked to put a fence around the cemetery and install a commemorative plaque. As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's missing children residential school cemetery project, archeologists identified 42 gravesites in the cemetery associated with the newer St. John's Residential School building that operated from 1920 to 1948. There are more unmarked graves within the cemetery of the second Chapleau school, say survivors and archaeologists.

You have a name and you know of your past. When you walk through the cemetery you see the grey metallic tags of the unknown, attached to the metal stakes. Here’s one. Who was this young person #1276781573268 in the shallow grave, buried unceremoniously, out of sight, out of mind?

Epilogue

As an epilogue, I seldom write a true column with personal thoughts I usually tell stories.

I just returned from Ottawa and purposely rode my bike to the front of the parliament buildings to see the display of children’s shoes and teddy bears laid on the stairs of public buildings and monuments, as Canada struggles reckons with the discovery of the remains of more children.

The shoes and the bears have been placed as poignant memorials following the revelation that the remains of 215 Indigenous children had been found at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation grounds and the 751 unmarked graves uncovered on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

Chapleau, Shingwauk in Sault. Ste. Marie and Spanish are residential school locales; go on a road trip to learn more.

Then I walked around the refurbishment-construction zone to the river or backside of the Peace Tower. Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue remains visible.

We have witnessed the toppling of statues and his is prime for consideration. I don’t think hiding or removing statues is the answer. When you concede in chess knocking over your king signals resignation, it is a custom.

If statues like Sir John A. were placed on their sides but left on display it would be a learning opportunity to create new plaques explaining the why and what of the Truth, as Dr. Pitt said, and then we need to know and what we can do for Reconciliation.

You will have to make the pilgrimage.

The commemorative cemetery is located on Hwy. 129, approaching Chapleau from the southwest, just before the Chapleau Inn and Suites, south of the OPP detachment on the east (right) side of the highway. See the map.

I crossed the Cedar St. wooden bridge spanning the Nebskwahsi River and went into the woods there. There’s an old overgrown road to be found, as usual, I was wandering looking for unnatural signs within what nature has long reclaimed.

There are the remains of the first school, as it did burn down, it was also once a pioneer farm, and it can be seen on a Google map image. The first school was on the northeast side of town and most likely any burial site would not be towards the river.

If you take the same distance where the second cemetery is located from the second school, “out of sight,” as Bill said, there may be a correlation of where the children are located, to the east to southeast.

The trees know. When you stop and listen, there are the faint cries of young voices and the call for help from an ailing scribe, all whispering directions


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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