Michael Cachagee rests on the brick edge of a raised flower garden in the cemetery of a former residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Behind him, among the weeds, is a weathered bouquet of fabric flowers, probably placed there some seasons ago by a family member of one of the young Indigenous people buried here. Beyond large tombstones honouring former school staff and their families, the remains of 72 students have also been identified – inconspicuous in mostly unmarked gravesites – and likely more beyond cemetery borders.
Here in the Shingwauk Memorial Cemetery is where Mr. Cachagee spread some of the ashes of his two brothers, who, like him, were survivors of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School.
“As much as the residential school hurt them, for me it was my only place with my family, with my brothers and my sisters,” he said. “So in a sense it was the only home that we knew, as much pain as we suffered.”
Over the decades, Mr. Cachagee has visited the cemetery often – sometimes on his own to grieve, sometimes to sit with other survivors.
Shingwauk closed in 1970. The former residential school was transitioned into Algoma University in 1971. Now, the walls of the three-storey brick building are lined with photographs of survivors and their written stories about abuse and survival.
At the bottom of the staircase to the lower level of the building, a small cubby hole no larger than two feet by two feet remains intact, preserved by the survivors who once hid inside as children, a place to escape their horrific reality and think about their families and homes. However, when school staff caught on, it quickly became a place of punishment where students were sent for hours without food, told to stay in there all day if they liked it so much.
Survivors began working to find and honour the students who died at Shingwauk in 1981, when they held a reunion at the school. At the same event, they formed the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association to carry the work forward. It was never a secret that children were buried in the cemetery, however by then many of the students’ wooden grave markers were gone. The fenced-in cemetery had fallen into a state of disrepair and vandalism, and was overgrown after years of neglect. Survivors raised funds to clean up the cemetery and for a memorial cairn that was erected in 1988.
Since then, much of the school’s history has been collected and preserved as part of the continuing work of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University, including a cemetery register that has so far identified 110 burials, including the 72 students. They range in age from five to 20 years old, with an average age of 13.
Walking through the cemetery, Mr. Cachagee pointed out a separate area from where the students are buried with marked headstones and large monuments, enclosed behind a black gate. “Over here we have bishops, we have canons, we have members of the Anglican Church that were the founding settlers buried in here,” Mr. Cachagee said, as he walked back towards the grass.
“But if you come back into here, in the unmarked graves, this is where the Anishinaabe people are,” he said. “Even in our deaths there was segregation.”
Consecrated by the Anglican Church in 1876, the cemetery is a donated plot of land once described by the church in its local Algoma Missionary News as a charming spot where its members were buried “close to those of the Indian children they loved” – the students they also called “inmates of the home.”
Edward Sadowski is a former professor at Algoma University and research co-ordinator at Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, who worked with survivors from 1990 until 2012. He said the Anglican Church was more helpful than some of the Catholic Church entities in providing records and photographs that have helped identify those who didn’t make it home. The destruction of records by the federal government has made the task challenging, he added.
Most of the students at Shingwauk Indian Residential School were from Southern Ontario and other parts of the province, and from as far west as Alberta. The earliest student death recorded is Hannah Weezhoo, a 13-year-old girl from Walpole Island who died on Jan. 30, 1876, of brain disease, according to church records. The most recent student death registered is Francis Bertram Wilson on Dec. 11, 1956, his cause of death and home community unknown.
Krista McCracken, the current interim director at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, said there are still many more residential school cemeteries across the country with unmarked graves or without any surface evidence there is even a cemetery.
In late May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in southern B.C. announced that 215 unmarked graves of children had been located at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School with ground-penetrating radar. The preliminary findings revealed what many long suspected about unmarked graves.
Following that uncovering, calls to investigate other residential school burial grounds across the country abounded. In June, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan revealed that 751 unmarked graves were located in the Roman Catholic cemetery at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. Chief Cadmus Delorme said the gravesite is locally believed to include the bodies of both children and adults, possibly including people from outside the community who attended church there. Soon after that, the community of ?Aq’am – part of the Ktunaxa Nation in southeastern B.C. – announced that a preliminary investigation had uncovered 182 unmarked graves near the former St. Eugene Mission residential school.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report in 2015 revealed horrific details and accounts of the severe abuse and neglect experienced by thousands of children forced to attend 139 government- and church-run residential schools in the country. More than 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit students were sent to residential schools, taken from their families in a system designed to strip them of their language, culture and identity in efforts to assimilate them. The TRC report called the “paternalistic and racist” residential school system “cultural genocide.”
A National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was established to develop a national residential school student death registry as part of the 94 Calls to Action from the TRC report. So far, more than 4,100 children are listed in that registry with an estimated 1,242 additional students who have yet to be identified in as many as 400 burial sites across the country.
At Shingwauk, there is also the matter of what’s beyond the cemetery. In Snowden Park – a lot that used to be farmland with a pond – the bodies of at least three children, including two students, are believed to be buried.
It’s a story Mr. Sadowski pieced together from the accounts of two people who attended the survivor reunion in 1981, including a survivor and a former staff member. Around 1915, school staff were unable to recover the bodies of two boys who had drowned in the pond. A nine-to-12-metre pole was used to drag the little lake that was large enough to appear in an aerial photograph, and even that couldn’t reach the bottom.
Then, in 1960, 10-year-old Gerald Crossman drowned in the icy pond trying to save his younger brother who had slid in. Four young girls from Shingwauk, who were nearby and heard their cries for help, were later recognized by the city for their life-saving efforts. The city filled in the pond after that owing to safety reasons, and recently apologized to the Crossman family for not taking precautions earlier, such as putting a fence around the pond, knowing the dangers that existed. Plans are now under way to work with the survivors and Crossman family for a memorial in Snowden Park to honour the three children.
The identities of the two Shingwauk boys in the pond remain unknown, but Mr. Sadowski has narrowed down a list of possible communities they may be from, based on Indian Affairs annual reports and Algoma Missionary News publications. He said he could narrow it down further by reviewing treaty annuity payment registers for each community – anyone who died would have been removed from that list, but privacy laws make it challenging.
Ms. McCracken said records from Library and Archives Canada, the Anglican Church, and documents left behind when the school closed have helped them identify the students buried in the cemetery, revealing much of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did – deaths at residential schools were caused by abuse, neglect and infectious diseases, and the government and churches were also often negligent in their policies and record keeping of such incidents.
Other documents show the callousness of reporting a child who died in residential school, often with little to no regard for their families and questions they might have about their child’s death, including when and how they died and where they were laid to rest.
Federal Indian agents were required to hold an inquiry within 48 hours of being notified by a school principal that a student had died, and parents or guardians of the deceased pupil were supposed to be given notice of the inquiry and invited to attend. However, given the distance and other logistical challenges of travelling for most families, that rarely happened, if at all. Indian Affairs didn’t pay for students’ funeral expenses.
Many of these deaths are engrained in Mr. Cachagee’s mind. He attended the first of three residential schools when he was just 3½ years old in Chapleau, Ont., where he resides. He remembers seeing children dying and the older boys making boxes and digging holes to bury them in. The burials occurred with no opportunity for cultural or spiritual teachings on death and grieving.
“No one’s crying, no mourning,” he said. “No one explained nothing to us.”
After the burials, “We come back and have lunch.”
The path to the Shingwauk cemetery starts behind the former principal’s residence and is wide and clear, surrounded by tall poplars on a carpet of lush greenery speckled with purple violets. In the days after the discovery in Kamloops, the stairs of the old Shingwauk school were filled with children’s shoes, flowers, stuffed animals, orange ribbons, traditional medicines, and notes of sympathy.
Mr. Cachagee said while he was triggered by the findings in Kamloops, he also worries how it is affecting the younger generations whose relatives attended residential schools. He said his own children and grandchildren check in with him regularly.
In the Shingwauk cemetery, he sits in quiet reflection, listening to the sound of the birds, including a crow that won’t stop cawing in the trees. It just so happens that Mr. Cachagee’s Anishinaabe name is Kaakaago, or crow, a bird regarded in his culture as a messenger that brings good news.
It’s a sign that one of his brothers is visiting, he said.
The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419.
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