This is part two of my two-part series on the history of the residential school system,with a focus on southern Ontario. You can read part one here.
In Ontario, there were roughly 15 residential schools and 13 of those were attended by Nishnawbe Aski Nation children. I have listed below the Ontario schools and posted a map; however, I will focus on the two large residential schools in our area.
You’ll recall in Canada there were roughly 130 residential schools operating at different times throughout the late 1800s up until the last residential school, Gordon School in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.
Despite all the publicity this issue has generated over the last few years, it seems most Canadians still are not fully aware of the schools that may have existed near them.
We have learned that Indigenous students lost their language, culture and family bonds and it all happened under our noses.
Here are some the things I have learned through my research:
- In 2008, the federal government formally apologized for the residential school system and other policies of assimilation.
- For more than 100 years, First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families to attend residential schools, most of which were run by churches and funded by the federal government.
- Some schools do not have records of student names, which means we have no record of children who may have died at those schools.
- In 1931, there were 80 residential schools operating in Canada. This was the most at any one time.
- An estimated 150,000 children attended residential schools.
- An estimated 6,000 children are thought to have died at residential schools (records are incomplete).
- On Sept. 30 2019, the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools in Canada were released by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The last residential school closed in 1996. Grollier Hall, which closed in 1997, was not a state-run residential school.
- The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007 and formal public apology made by then prime minister Stephen Harper in 2008 were as a result of claims being made by former students.
It is important we understand residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools that were established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.
Although the first residential facilities were established in New France, the term residential school usually refers to those schools established after 1880.
The schools disrupted Indigenous lives and communities, the effects still being felt today.
Southern Ontario was home to two notorious residential schools: the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford and the Mount Elgin Indian Residential School near St. Thomas.
Here is a list of the residential schools of Ontario and years of operation. You can use the map I provided for their basic locations.
- St. Anne’s (1936-1964) in Fort Albany
- Bishop Horden (1907-1963) in Moose Factory
- Pelican Falls (1911-1973) in Sioux Lookout
- Cecilia Jeffrey (1907-1966) in Kenora
- St. Mary’s (1894-1962) in Kenora
- McIntosh (1924-1962) in McIntosh
- St. Margaret’s (1902-1974) in Fort Frances
- St. Joseph’s (1936-1964) in Fort William
- St. John’s (1907-1950) in Chapleau
- Shingwauk (1873-1971) in Sault Ste. Marie
- St. Peter Claver (Spanish) (1883-1965) in Spanish
- Mohawk (1850-1969) in Brantford
- Mount Elgin (1848-1948) near St. Thomas
There were also four Mennonite Schools located at Beaver Lake, Poplar Hill, Cristal Lake and Stirland Lake.
The Mohawk Institute was the longest continually operating residential school, from 1885 to 1970. However, The Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, accepted its first boarding students in 1831.
It was initially operated by the Anglican church before the federal government assumed responsibility for the school in 1945. At least 48 children are documented as having perished while they were students at the school.
The Six Nations write that the school, which was commonly known as the Mush Hole because it was one of the first of the residential schools, operated virtually unregulated and unaccountable from the very start.
Reports from the 1940s and 1950s speak of an ongoing infestation of cockroaches, issues with rats, inadequate quantity and quality of food, lack of fire safety measures, and other issues identified at the school through inspections. Still, it continued to operate until 1970.
The report also speaks of a “rash of runaways” in early 1949, with 25 girls running away. All but two were quickly found, however 10 of the girls ran away for a second time less than two weeks later.
By the 1960s, most of the students came from either northern Quebec or northwestern Ontario.
The plan was to send them as far away from home as possible to deter the notion that they could run away and just go back home.
Today, the Woodland Cultural Centre, dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Indigenous history, art, language, and culture, operates on the site of the Mohawk Institute.
The other notorious institution in southern Ontario was the Mount Elgin School, which ran from roughly 1850 to 1946 and was operated by the Methodist / United Church. Its current records indicate at least five deaths during its operation.
Like the Mohawk Institute, the school was infested with cockroaches and in poor condition, being described by an Indian Affairs official in 1942 as “one of the most dilapidated structures I have ever inspected.”
The school was also home to a principal whose harshness stood out, even within the residential school system.
Oliver Strapp was at Mount Elgin from 1929-44, first as a vice principal and then as principal beginning in 1934. His tenure resulted in numerous complaints, not only from families of students but from the wider public. Instead of being removed or disciplined, Strapp was transferred to a residential school in Brandon, Manitoba where the commission states “his troubles would follow him.”
In the 1942-43 school year, the Truth and Reconciliation report found that roughly 60 students had run away from the school.
One of the students’ mothers asked that her son be discharged once he was found, saying that “each time he has run away and when they got him back the principal of the school gives him a big beating but he says that will not make him stay.”
In 1943, the parents of at least three students swore statements raising various concerns, including that the principal would raise the girls’ skirts when whipping them, that they would be severely whipped or strapped for minor offences, and that they were told not to talk about conditions at the school when visiting home.
It was also reported that one of the teachers was fired for being too kind.
A St. Thomas man who returned a runaway boy to the school wrote a letter to Indian Affairs in 1944 calling for an investigation and claiming that if “half the boy’s story is right,” he was glad he was not Indigenous.
So where do we find ourselves today? Indigenous communities, with some church and government support have been focusing on the long-term impact of residential schools, including family breakdowns, violence and aimlessness. Former students have demanded that government and churches publicly acknowledge their role in the schools and provide compensation for their suffering.
In 2005, the federal government established a $1.9-billion compensation package for the survivors of abuse at residential schools. In 2007, the federal government and churches that had operated the schools agreed to provide financial compensation to former students under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
On June 11, 2008, prime minister Harper, on behalf of the Government of Canada, offered an apology to all former students at residential schools. The apology was meant to openly recognize that the assimilation policy was a blight on our history and had no place in our country.
The government stated it recognized how profoundly damaging the policy was and the lasting impact the schools have had on Indigenous culture, heritage and language. Now it was time for the government to assure the story is included in every history course across this nation.
Harper’s apology and the compensation packages excluded survivors of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. The argument was that Canada did not establish or operate residential schools in that province (Newfoundland joined us in 1949) and thus Canada was not responsible for compensating former students. This issue was finally resolved via litigation, and they received their settlement of $50 million and on Nov. 24, 2017, Prime Minister Trudeau formally apologized.
On Sept. 30, 2019, the names of 2,800 children who had died in residential schools in Canada were released by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in a ceremony in Gatineau. The ceremony was the culmination of years of archival research of government and church records dealing with Indigenous children in 80 schools across the country, with records going back as far as the 1890s.
According to archivists, another 1,600 children who died in residential schools still remain unnamed, and researchers continue to pore over records to discover their identities. Now we know that there are more with the prospect of still more.
In 2020, the federal government announced it was designating two former residential schools, Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia and Portage La Prairie Residential School in Manitoba, as national historic sites.
And so ends my two-part examination of the tragedy that is the residential school system. The steps are clear as to how we must embrace our history and move forward.
Thank you for following this sad story with me and for acknowledging our collective past.
Sources: Files from Andrew Graham, Rebecca Lau, Raquel Fletcher, Rachel Gilmore and Katie Dangerfield at Global News; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, They Came for the Children: Canada; Historica Canada Website - A summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Canada’s Residential Schools: The History; Indian School Days (1988) by Basil H. Johnston; A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986 by John S. Milloy; Robert Carney, “Aboriginal Residential Schools Before Confederation: The Early Experience”, Historical Studies: Canadian Catholic Historical Association; Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History by J.R. Miller; A Lost Heritage: Canada's Residential Schools CBC News; Shingwauk's Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools by J.R. Miller; The Canadian Encyclopedia - Residential Schools in Canada; Residential Schools in Canada by J.R. Miller; Library and Archives Canada; Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs; Nishnawbe Aski Nation website resources
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.