In 2010 I walked through the doors of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC) excited to be part of a project that had a long history of community based outreach and activism. I had read the seminal academic texts on residential schools and I thought I knew my history. I had a naive notion that my reading would prepare me for working in the SRSC and that it would prepare me for preserving the legacy of residential schools. I had no idea how vastly insufficient my book based knowledge was or how my perspectives about Indigenous history, culture, and communities would shift through my experiences at the SRSC.
From 1874–1970, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was home to the Shingwauk Residential School, one of the over 130 residential schools that existed across Canada. In 1970 the Shingwauk Residential School was closed and in 1971 Algoma University moved onto the Shingwauk site. Since Algoma’s relocation to the site, there have been substantial discussions around what it means to occupy this historic space and what can be done to reflect upon, honour and heal from the traumatic history that occurred on this site.
At times this discussion has been led by the university community, but more often these critical conversations have been rooted in the residential school survivor community. In 1979, Dan Pine Sr., a residential school survivor and descendant of Chief Shingwaukonse of Garden River First Nation said “The Shingwauk School never closed. It just entered a new phase of development. It has to be given a chance to finish what it started. It has to put back what it took away. Bring the people together. Let them gather and they will know what to do.”
Dan Pine’s words were the foundation of the Shingwauk Project, which would later evolve into the SRSC. The Shingwauk Project was established to collect, share, and preserve the history of the Shingwauk School. The project’s first undertaking was the organization of the Shingwauk 1981 Reunion. The reunion invited survivors, former staff, family members and others connected to Shingwauk to return to the site and begin to talk about their experience. Over 300 people attended that reunion to begin the process of healing, community building, and reconciliation. This event solidified the purpose of the Shingwauk Project: the establishment of the Shingwauk archives, and resulted in the founding of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, a grassroots residential school survivor organization.
Thirty-six years have passed since that first reunion and the desire to engage with community, tell residential school experiences from the survivor perspective, and teach others about the ongoing legacy of residential schools has become a fundamental part of the identity of the SRSC and Algoma University. Today, the SRSC is an archive, research centre, and visitor space. The SRSC is jointly managed by Algoma University and the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA) and it collects archival records, oral histories and material culture relating to residential schools, healing, and Indigenous communities across Canada. These archival and resource collections support the community education and outreach work undertaken by the Centre.
The SRSC’s community engagement is based around the idea of “sharing, healing, and learning” and a desire to promote cross-cultural dialogue about residential schools. When asked about the personal and community importance of the SRSC, Shirley Horn, a residential school survivor, Algoma University graduate and current Chancellor of Algoma University, remarked, “Ever since its inception it has had a special mission. For former residential school students it has become a place to bring memories and descriptions of their experiences and enter them into the historical record.” For Horn and many other residential school survivors, the SRSC serves as a meeting place and as a way to connect to a shared history. It is also a place where they can start conversations with the families and communities about the ongoing impacts of residential schools. Horn also emphasized that the SRSC plays a crucial part in teaching the public about shared historical legacies, and noted the importance of the SRSC as “a place tied to past and future relationships” that is essential for understanding history in this country.
In addition to serving residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors, the SRSC also provides educational programming to students, settler Canadians and the general public. This educational programming is a way of raising awareness about the legacy of residential schools, including discussions about the ongoing impacts of the school system, and emphasizes the importance of relationship building. In 2016 SRSC staff provided educational tours and instruction sessions to over 1,600 school children, post-secondary students, and professional development groups. These instruction sessions integrate the voices and experiences of survivors and share the legacy of residential schools from the survivor perspective. In recent years, the SRSC has worked with the Project of Heart, the Legacy of Hope Foundation and local community groups to develop educational resources for students and teachers. As many schools begin to integrate Indigenous history into the classroom, the programming of the SRSC has become increasingly utilized locally and across Ontario.
Skylee-Storm Hogan, a fourth-year Algoma University student who has worked extensively with the SRSC collections, said, “Knowing about residential schools has helped me understand the societal issues in this specific community and in other communities where there are residential schools.” She points out that her research at the SRSC and her engagement with community partners through SRSC programming has helped “identify the intersections of personal, family, and community history that impact us all.” For her, the SRSC helped put history and present day realities into context.
The SRSC is a living archive and educational resource that contains unique perspectives on the history of residential schools in Canada. The survivors and intergenerational survivors are the ones who, in the 1980s, saw the need to preserve their side of the historical narrative and who have worked for decades to ensure that their history isn’t lost amongst official government versions of the past. I am constantly learning from the resilience, experiences, and dedication of the survivors who engage with the SRSC. That survivor-driven history is what makes the Centre unique and an increasingly important resource in a country that is focused on reconciliation and strengthening relationships with Indigenous communities.