The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says over 70 Indigenous youth in the Kenora area died while attending two local residential schools.
For over 100 years, over 150,000 Indigenous youth were forcibly taken from their families to be assimilated into residential schools and settler-culture, which included giving youth new names, haircuts and identification numbers.
“Policies that were seen as being unacceptable in the early twentieth century were still in place in the 1960s,” wrote the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions report in 2015, referencing the treatment of students in the Cecilia Jeffrey institution in Kenora.
The commission cites a number of physical, sexual and emotional abuse incidents suffered by students in the early 1900’s, which continued through the ’70s, locally. Canada’s last residential school, the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, operated until 1996.
“Many students compared Residential Schools to jails: some spoke of being locked in their dormitories, broom closets, basements and even crawl spaces. In 1965, students who ran away were locked up with just a mattress on the floor and put on a bread and milk diet,” continued the report.
The Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora was built in 1901 and ran until 1976. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says at least 37 students passed away while attending the Presbyterian Church-ran school.
“When funding was cut during the depression of the 1930s, it was the students who paid the price – in more ways than one,” states the report, noting the federal government’s funding contributions to the school fluctuated each year. During the second world war, a child was being fed on 40 cents per day.
Cecilia Jeffrey was the focal point of Gord Downie’s Secret Path project in 2016. The project shared the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who had escaped from the school in 1966. He passed away while attempting to walk home to his family in Marten Falls.
“When found, he was lying on his back… wearing only his cotton clothing, obviously soaked. He had no identification; he was carrying a glass jar with a screw top. Inside, a half dozen wooden matches.”
Downie’s Secret Path was based on the 1967 article published by Ian Adams named ‘The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack’. Adams described Kenora as ‘the town that hardly noticed’ Wenjack’s death.
The school’s site is now the Grand Council Treaty #3’s main office off of Airport Road and just up the hill from Round Lake. A memorial to those who attended the school has also been created on the property.
St. Mary’s Indian Residential School was run by the Roman Catholic Church near the Devil’s Gap Marina. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says at least 36 students passed away while attending the school, which was operated by the Roman Catholic Church until 1972.
Two 12-year-olds were found deceased after running away from St. Mary's in 1970. They were Phillip ‘Bean’ Swain and Roderick Taypaywaykejick. The two had planned to walk home to Grassy Narrows First Nation.
Both schools are said to have performed nutritional experiments with illegal flour on children in their care between 1942 and 1952. Cecilia Jeffrey students are said to have undergone experimental ear issue treatments in 1954. The Presbyterian Church issued an apology to former students over the experiments in 2013.
In 1994, the Presbyterian Church of Canada apologized to Indigenous people for its role in the Indian Residential School system.
“We ask for forgiveness from Aboriginal Peoples. What we have heard we acknowledge. It is our hope that those whom we have wronged, with a hurt too deep for telling, will accept what we have to say."
"With God’s guidance, our Church will seek opportunities to walk with Aboriginal peoples to find healing and wholeness together as God’s people.”
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a full apology on behalf of all Canadians for the Indian Residential School system.
“The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,” said Harper. “Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities.”
“The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools' policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”
June is National Indigenous History Month. National Indigenous Solidarity Day is set for June 21.
In memory of Cecilia Jeffrey students:
Hector A. Flett
Henry Achanesa Ctouth
John Shawun Nebqua Petung
Mary Louise Oshie
Richard Allan Mandamin
In memory of St. Mary’s students:
Marie Therese Bob
Martha G Sukedjeweskang
Michael Charley Macheegabow
Warning: the following images from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, courtesy of the Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives, may be a trigger for residential school survivors.
If you are a residential school survivor, you are able to contact the 24-hour National Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 for support.