Skip to main content

Tanya Talaga is a Globe and Mail columnist.

Thomas and Samuel Skelliter are not here to speak for themselves. Neither are their direct descendants, because they do not have any. They both died at Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Thomas was 18. Sam was 7. They had no chance to go to college or university or to get a job or to raise a family. They never went home. Instead, their bodies lie here, somewhere behind the “school,” enveloped in the cold earth, surrounded by their classmates in unmarked graves.

They deserve to be recognized for the brief lives they led and lost, thrust into a world they did not ask to be born into. Their memories deserve to be honoured, not demeaned by questions surrounding Indian residential schools and the lack of understanding that has manifested into outward denialism. They don’t deserve that.

The only ones to speak for them now are the survivors and intergenerational survivors of this horrible place, and Thomas and Sam’s extended family. That includes me.

Open this photo in gallery:

Many of the pictures of the children at Shingwauk contain little details and rarely name them. This is an example. All we know about them is they are 'Ojibwe family orphans.'National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

My family did not know that Thomas Skelliter or his younger brother Samuel existed. As with many other First Nations families, residential schools, racist policies such as the Indian Act, and the Sixties Scoop have nearly crushed us. Even today, we never know when a new relative is going to show up. Alive or dead.

I found the two boys, quite by accident, one night while searching the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website. While the centre is physically located at the University of Manitoba, it houses a vast digital collection of archival material, photographs, and statements from survivors of Indian residential schools. It was formed as part of the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which listened to nearly 7,000 survivors and witnesses to the forced assimilation of nearly 150,000 Métis, Inuit and First Nations children from the mid-1800s to 1996.

The NCTR’s website is formidable. It can sometimes seem impenetrable to those who aren’t professional archivists. There is an overwhelming amount of information available, and new records are made available every single day. Tellingly, there is a memorial list of the children who died while attending each institution. I can think of no other “schools” in Canada that have a roll call of dead children on their websites, or, conversely, that have graveyards.

Truthfully, Shingwauk had not been on my radar. But then I came across Thomas and Sara Skilliter’s name on the school’s memorial list. (Thomas and Samuel’s last name in school records is Skilliter but it is spelled Skelliter by the family.) It was the same, unusual last name as my great-grandfather Alphonse Russ (Piska) Bowen’s half-brother, John Skilliter, and his half-sisters Marianne and Margaret Skilliter. The siblings were all born around the same time, from the early 1890s to the turn of the last century. All but Alphonse had the same father, Sam Skilliter, an English fur trapper who lived in Savanne, Ont. They all seemed to share one mother, Mary Piska or Piske, depending on which record you are reading. (One record shows Thomas’s mother was a Mary “Alicuing” or “Alicumig.” After an extensive search by archivists at the Shingwauk Residential School Centre, this Mary could not be found. It is believed she is really Mary Piska.) The family had been split up, the children scattered. Marianne and Margaret, for instance, were at the Roman Catholic-run St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School in Thunder Bay.

But who were Thomas and Sara Skilliter? I contacted the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre for help. The centre is jointly run by Algoma University and the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, comprised of survivors and their families. Remarkably, the Ontario university is partly housed in the old Shingwauk and Wawanosh Indian Residential School buildings, on the shores of the St. Mary’s River. This is on Garden River First Nation land. Wawanosh was the name of the girls’ school.

Jenna Lemay, a digital archives technician at the centre, answered my inquiry. Along with Krista McCracken, they got to work combing through records, and from what is available, they were able to help piece together the history.

Open this photo in gallery:

The 1901 Shingwauk building is where Thomas and Samuel lived and spent their brief lives. It had no plumbing or electricity and eventually was torn down to make way for the new Shingwauk building that is now home to Algoma University.National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

The Shingwauk school was first located in Garden River First Nation. Originally, Chief Shingwaukonse, a decorated war hero who fought for the British in the War of 1812, dreamed of teaching wigwams, where Anishinaabe children could learn their language, ways of life and lessons alongside those of the new settlers who were swarming over the borders from the United States and Great Britain.

But what was created was a bastardization of Chief Shingwauk’s vision that morphed into prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s and long-serving Indian Affairs bureaucrat Duncan Campbell Scott’s ferocious tool of assimilation. Shingwauk became a pillar of Indian residential schools – and the efforts to devise a solution to the “Indian problem.”

Within days of it opening in 1873, it burned to the ground. Undeterred, Anglican missionary Rev. Edward W. Wilson got to work constructing another school, this one located on a different site, along the St. Mary’s River, which is between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. It could easily accommodate ship traffic, including children being dropped off by boat.

Contrary to Chief Shingwaukonse’s vision, only Indigenous children went to Shingwauk.

Ms. Lemay found school records that show Samuel Skilliter, not Sara Skilliter (the mistake was the result of a transcription error), and Thomas Skilliter were from Fort William, on the northern shores of Lake Superior. Samuel was just four years old when he arrived at Shingwauk in 1902. His brother, Thomas, arrived two years earlier, in 1900, when he was six years old. Once at Shingwauk, they never went home again.

Open this photo in gallery:

Samuel Skelliter's burial permit was misread for about 120 years. The name 'Sam' was misread as 'Sara.' Thus he was known as 'Sara Skelliter' in most records until Algoma's Jenna Lemay caught the error and, along with Tanya Talaga, notified the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to correct the name on the memorial page.National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

There was no love for the children at Shingwauk in the early 1900s. Annual reports continually describe the children as miscreants in need of saving. This, from the Shingwauk and Wawanosh annual report for 1902, when Thomas and Sam were both students: “With animalism in their nature well developed, and with strong passionate inclinations to do only what pleases them best and yet with natures sensitive to a degree if crossed or sharply reprimanded, our task is not an easy one and calls for the greatest tact and patience,” Bishop George Algoma (George Thornloe) wrote in his “Bishop’s Letter” at the beginning of the report. There was more: “From the moment the new arrival enters the Home, he must be watched closely in school and out, and with systematic perseverance the old shiftless ways and dirty habits must be eradicated.”

There isn’t much detail about Thomas and Sam. There are no photographs of the boys. Like all of the other schools, photographs that name the children are extremely rare.

We only know generalities about their lives. The children at Shingwauk ranged in age from 4 to 19 and were mostly from the “Ojibway and Delaware tribes,” the 1902 annual report says. Many children came from Walpole Island, while few students came from Garden River First Nation – that was too close, meaning kids could easily run away. Instead, many Garden River children were sent to the Catholic-run Spanish Indian residential schools. At Shingwauk, everyone wore uniforms of dark navy blue, trimmed with red and with brass buttons. There were 41 boys and 15 girls at the institution.

Open this photo in gallery:

The 1911 census shows Thomas Skelliter, in row seven, listed as an 'inmate' of Shingwauk Indian Residential School. The word 'inmate' not 'student,' was used to describe the children at Shingwauk.National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

Thomas and Sam would have lived inside the big, damp, Shingwauk building outwardly facing the river. There was no plumbing, no electricity, and by the 1930s the building was condemned. Students attended classes only for half a day. For the other half, they were sent to work in the carpentry shop or in the fields. The “rougher outdoor work” fell to the boys, the report noted, while the girls were taught domestic chores – sewing, cooking and laundry.

Sam was just seven years old when he died of a “rupturing bowel in Typhoid,” on Dec. 9, 1905. Typhoid is a bacterial infection that comes from poor sanitation – dirty water infected with fecal material. The National Library of Medicine says that after an intense fever and abdominal pain for nearly a week, the bowel can break apart.

I can’t imagine how frightened he would have been. Was there anyone there who cared enough to hold his hand? Did his parents know he was dying? At the time of Sam’s illness, Thomas would have been 10. Was he allowed to visit his little brother?

According to school annual reports, Thomas was a student who hit all his markers. But we know little else. We don’t know if he ever played sports or liked to draw or if he ever fell in love. We know he was assigned to work in the laundry room for his later teen years – not carpentry or the farm, but the hot, steamy, dank laundry room. And we know he spent months in hospital before dying of tuberculosis. We only know that detail because the Indian Agent was trying to figure out where to send his hospital bill. He was 18 years old, barely a man, when he died on July 12, 1913.

Open this photo in gallery:

Thomas Skelliter's death records, listed in the first column, show he died of Tuberculosis when he was 18 years old.National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

Last fall, before the snow, ground-penetrating radar was used to conduct an initial search of the Algoma University property. The results are expected this spring.

Last week, Garden River First Nation’s Darrell Boissoneau, a walking encyclopedia of local Garden River history and Chief Shingwauk’s vision, took me to visit the area where it is believed Thomas and Sam are buried.

We trudged through the thick, ice-covered snow, past maple trees brightly coloured with blue buckets to catch the running sap. No one knows for certain where the boys are. They do not have grave markers and it is unknown if they even have coffins. Someone has left an orange-painted rock by a tree in the centre of the space that says “215,″ to commemorate the 215 possible graves found by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc nearly two years ago.

The rock peeking out of the snow immediately took me back to Kamloops. I was there, nearly two years ago when the world found out about the Kamloops Indian Residential School children, Le Estcwéy, buried in the apple orchard. It was their spirits’ powerful call that shook us, mobilized all of us to get out there, start searching and reclaim our kin. They had already waited too long. I did not know that when I stood on the front steps of the residential school that it would lead me here, to Shingwauk’s frozen backfield to find Sam and Thomas. And that it would be my role to tell everyone else, to tell all of our extended family at Fort William First Nation and beyond, that two lost boys had been found. That it was time to call their spirits home.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles