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Canada Thunder Bay unveils memorial for students of former residential school

On the site of a former residential school, stories of its painful legacy were shared with hundreds of Thunder Bay students clustered on a sunlit field.

They heard from Phil Pelletier of the Fort William First Nation whose father attended St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School but kept silent about his experience.

“He would never talk about this place, and we never pushed him,” Mr. Pelletier said.

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They heard from retired Lakehead University professor Dolores Wawia, who was born in Gull Bay First Nation, the eldest of 12 children, and first sent to St. Joseph’s when she was five. “My three brothers and I were taken away, brought into town and left there for five months.”

And they heard from Ann Magiskan, the aboriginal liaison for the City of Thunder Bay, whose stepmother was sent to the boarding school in the 1950s, far from her home in Little Grand Rapids, Man.

Their stories and those of thousands of other Indigenous peoples were recognized Wednesday at a ceremony marking the creation of a memorial site to honour the former students of St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School. The Catholic church-affiliated school, which was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie, operated for nearly a century before it was closed and demolished in 1966.

Today, a Catholic senior elementary school stands in its place. Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox of Nishnawbe Aski Nation said he hopes the students and other Thunder Bay residents heed the lessons from St. Joseph’s legacy.

“The power of the residential schools, the negative power, is real,” said Mr. Fox, whose mother was dispatched to a residential school in Kenora, his father sent to one in Sault Ste. Marie. “It gets passed down from generation to generation.”

Mr. Fox urged the audience to listen and show compassion.

“We have people on the streets. We have people battling addiction, alcohol and drugs. We have students coming in from the north, students having a hard time,” he noted. “Take that time to understand the history of your friends and neighbours here in the city.”

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Thunder Bay is reckoning with racism against Indigenous peoples. Its police service is confronting accusations of systemic racism on the force, detailed in a report from Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director last December.

And the city’s revamped police services board, an oversight body, is in turmoil. One member, lawyer John Cyr, was recently removed from the board by the province because of a letter he wrote to a local newspaper in 2017 defending Senator Lynn Beyak. Ms. Beyak, who was suspended from the Senate, has been accused of racism for saying that some good came out of Canada’s residential schools.

Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro, meanwhile, is facing calls to resign from the board – including from the Fort William First Nation – after he played down the impact of racism in the city at a town-hall meeting last month. The police board was disbanded last year after a report from Senator Murray Sinclair accused it of “wilful blindness” toward the challenges faced by First Nations residents.

On Wednesday, that friction was set aside for reconciliation. The St. Joseph’s memorial site is the result of a collaboration between the city, Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the Thunder Bay Catholic School Board. Mr. Mauro said he hopes the site will bring people together as well as serve as a reminder of the impact of residential schools.

It took more than six years to plan, design and create the memorial. It includes a monument made of Ruby Lake marble, a plaque, a medicine wheel, benches and a garden of sacred medicine plants: sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco.

“It’s a place for survivors to come and just pray, if they need to,” said Ms. Magiskan, a member of Lac Seul First Nation, “and to ask for guidance and strength from the Creator as we go forward.”

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