Almost two centuries ago, an Anishinaabe leader named Chief Shingwauk helped establish the Garden River First Nation near what is now Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The chief was an advocate of education and had a vision of “Teaching Wigwams”, places where Indigenous people and settlers would learn together while ensuring Indigenous culture and rights were not lost. The dream was not realized in his lifetime, but his sons opened the first Shingwauk School in 1873 with a missionary from the Anglican Church. Over time, Chief Shingwauk’s vision was co-opted by the policies of the Indian Residential School System and the school changed locations. In 1935, a much larger residential school named Shingwauk Hall was built on Queen Street in Sault Ste. Marie. Like other residential schools, Shingwauk Hall was a place where Indigenous youth were forced to endure hardship, abuse, and cultural assimilation.
The Shingwauk Indian Residential School finally closed in 1970, and the building became part of the Algoma University campus. In the years that followed, survivors of the residential school formed the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association. What started as reunion in 1981 became a healing movement and an effort to collect and organize photographs and other materials. After decades of work, a significant initiative began to develop – a survivor-driven exhibition that would present a century of the residential school’s history within the larger context of colonialism, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada.
Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall
On August 3, 2018, the permanent exhibition Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall was launched at Algoma University. Located in the main hallway of the former residential school, it features displays commemorating the lived experience of the students. Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall presents survivors’ testimony through oral stories, wall texts, and archival images that span more than 100 years. In telling the truth of what happened, the former students have taken control of their own legacy while reclaiming a space that was purpose-built to remove their identity.
Realizing a vision
To date, more than 10,000 visitors have attended the exhibition. It exemplifies an approach to teaching history in which Indigenous peoples tell their own stories, and provides survivors with a meaningful path toward healing. Supported by the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University, the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association will continue to partner with groups to research, collect, preserve, and display the history of residential schools across Canada. The association wants to develop initiatives that promote their mandate of sharing, healing, and learning – and continue to seek ways to realize Chief Shingwauk’s vision.
Projects like Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall require courage. The courage of visitors who take it upon themselves to confront the darkness of Canada’s past. The courage of community members who, instead of turning inwards, invite others to see what a vibrant place this is. And, above all, the courage of survivors who have found the inner strength, with the support of family and friends, to share their deeply personal stories so that what happened at Shingwauk Hall, and at residential schools like it, will never happen again. Such storytelling is essential to the journey of respectful healing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and to achieving a society that is just, sustainable, and resilient.
When I attended the opening of Shingwauk Hall in 2018, I spent the day with inspiring women, including Shirley Horn, a former student at the residential school who now serves as the Chancellor of Algoma University. These courageous women saw the future through a positive lens, they understood the importance of education, despite their own history with the institution. Through the survivors’ efforts, Chief Shingwauk’s unique vision from almost 200 hundred years ago has endured, and today remains relevant in building our capacity for social cohesion and creating sustainable communities.Sustainability