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Shirley Horn reflects on impacts of residential school

Children of Shingwauk co-founder finds peace in life after spending formative years in an institution designed to assimilate her

As a child, Shirley Horn would often wonder why she wasn’t like the other children that she would read about in books who had houses, families and engaged in ‘normal’ everyday activities. 

That's because Horn attended residential school for a period of more than eight years, beginning at the age of five when she was uprooted from her home in Missanabie, Ont. and sent to St. John’s Indian Residential School in Chapleau. When the school was closed and condemned due to poor operating conditions, the children were transferred. 

In 1947 Horn would be relocated to Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie at the age of seven, a place where she would remain for 10 months out of the year. Children were permitted to return to their home communities for two months during the summer, provided their parents footed the bill. 

While she absorbed every opportunity to learn during her time in the residential school system, Horn would notice that outside visitors were discouraged, and that both the ceremonies and the way of life that she knew back home were all but gone.    

“I was getting older, like seven years old, and I started to realize that this wasn’t natural,” said Horn. “I was in an institution, but why I was there, I didn’t know.” 

Horn and all 10 of her siblings attended residential school. She says that the loss of culture, and being separated from families and communities, were the most harmful impacts of the residential school system. 

Many of the children were given English names during their time at residential schools, Horn said, in order “to take the Indian out of the child.” Students were eventually stripped of their respective languages and indoctrinated with Christianity and the non-Indigenous lifestyle through the work of these institutions.  

“When they got home, they couldn’t live the same lifestyle as their parents, because they were so indoctrinated on the other perspective and there was no communication,” said Horn. “All of the time that was spent in school, the community suffered greatly because there were no more children there. 

"The community suffered greatly because there were no more children there"

“What are you going to do as a parent? What are you going to do as a grandparent? The whole family was broken up. They all suffered.”

Boys and girls were separated while Horn was growing up as a child at Shingwauk. Although they were in the same school, Horn was also separated from her other sisters because they were in separate dormitories. The only time they would see each other was before meals and some group situations. 

“I think that’s the very sad part of it,” she said. 

Horn and her family make up a portion of the Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall exhibit on the present-day grounds of Algoma University, the same site where she was indoctrinated with the non-Indigenous way of life as a young child at Shingwauk Indian Residential School. 

On a chilly April morning, Horn walks through the hallway at the former Shingwauk site at present-day Algoma University, where the Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall exhibit is located.  

She points to a photo on the wall of her and one of her sisters standing outside of St. John’s Indian Residential School. Another photo taken at Shingwauk in 1939 shows her two eldest siblings, Frederick James Fletcher and Florence Fletcher. 

There are also photos of Horn’s siblings and descendants who pursued higher education at Algoma University.    

“I’m so happy for that, they felt that they were able to come here and be treated right and be treated well, and take advantage of the education,” she said. 

Horn achieved a number of accomplishments since leaving Shingwauk in the early 1950s. She served two three-year terms as chief of Missanabie Cree First Nation and graduated from Algoma University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2009. In 2015, Horn would be named the first-ever chancellor at Algoma University, a position she held for five years.  

These days Horn is focused on her work with the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, a survivor-led group for former students of Shingwauk and Wawanosh residential schools, their families and communities. A founding member of the group, Horn has worked with CSAA since its inception in 1981 in order to bring the history and stories of the Shingwauk school to the forefront. 

The survivors' group is currently being faced with two challenges: Ottawa’s refusal to allow the group access to federal records, and the ongoing search for potential unmarked burials at the former Shingwauk site.

Earlier this year, CSAA was denied access to the Indian Register — a central register containing genealogical databases on First Nations people and treaty pay lists — which stalled its efforts to identify two boys and two girls who died while attending the Shingwauk school in the early 1900s.

The group received a letter from Indian Registrar John Gordon in March denying its request to comb the register for their names, citing privacy issues. 

"They hide behind the Privacy Act." 

“They hide behind the Privacy Act and so on — those children are long dead from this world, so it would be part of resolution for what we need to see as former residential school children is to have full acknowledgement and honour those who have passed away and get those names so we can put them up on a memorial,” said Horn. “That in itself is really important, and the government holds that key.”

Children of Shingwauk will also continue the search for potential unmarked burials at the former Shingwauk site this year. Ground-penetrating radar was used on a small portion of the Algoma University campus in late September of last year, but the group is still awaiting the results. 

In April, Children of Shingwauk received $200,000 from the Ontario government to help develop and implement an engagement strategy for the 85 Indigenous communities impacted by the residential school that operated in Sault Ste. Marie from 1874 to 1970. 

“There could be. Your guess is as good as mine,” Horn said when asked if she believes there are unmarked burials at the site. “People need closure for their families, their communities and for groups like the Children of Shingwauk. That’s really, really important.”  

Many survivors are still seeking some form of closure, much like the First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations that travelled to the Vatican in late March. 

While Horn applauded the efforts of the delegations, which included a number of survivors, she thought the unanticipated apology by Pope Francis to delegates came off as a “guarded” and “roundabout” acknowledgement which “lacked the emotion of someone who was truly grieved” about subjecting Indigenous Peoples to the residential school system — a system that saw the Catholic Church operate more than 60 per cent of residential schools in Canada. 

“Should the Pope come to Canada this year, I would expect a full, honourable apology and ownership taken for all the grievances that have been bestowed upon the children,” said Horn. “Other people may have done the acts and not the Pope himself, but he’s the head of the church. He’s the guiding light of the Roman Catholic Church, and everything is followed that the Pope of the time was told about. 

"They had hoped that we would forget about it. But we'll never forget." 

“It’s not that they didn’t know about it or anything, they just chose to ignore it — and who knows, probably in time, they had hoped that we would forget about it. But we’ll never forget.”

Indigenous leadership has also demanded that Catholics take concrete actions toward reconciliation, including rescinding papal orders such as the Doctrine of Discovery, holding members of the church accountable and turning over all residential school documents. 

“I don’t believe that they will, because that changes everything about who they are, and what the real true extent of the damage, not only to the native people in this country, but in the United States as well and all the countries where First Nations people are,” Horn said of growing calls on the Catholic Church to rescind its papal bulls. “There’s an element of the Catholic religion that stands before all. So yes, that’s a historical wrong, and I would certainly hope that the conversations can be led in that direction.” 

“This is what I’m hoping for — a full acknowledgement of the wrongs that were done, and a full acknowledgement, a full apology, for the lives that were ruined.” 

Horn’s own healing journey began when she was 50 years old, in a bid to come to grips with spending her formative childhood years in residential school.  

As Horn reflected on her healing journey while sitting in the Anishinaabe Student Life Centre at Algoma University, the 81-year-old survivors advocate said she has finally found a sense of peace in her life.    

“It’s taken me all of this time to come to [a] resolution that I will have peace in this lifetime, and the peace is dependent on me and what I do,” she said.