By: Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press
As Canada marks the grim legacy of its Indigenous residential school system Friday, a London-area First Nation is developing a fuller picture of the nearly 1,000 students who attended one such school in the area.
Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, which last year announced its plans to search for any unmarked graves at the site of the former Mount Elgin Industrial School, says it has so far identified more than 900 students who attended the school and nearly 300 people associated with it.
The nation has worked with researchers to review “several thousand pages” of records relevant to the former school that operated for nearly 100 years, Chief Jacqueline French said in a statement.
“Some of the archival materials we reviewed are found in public collections, such as those held by Library and Archives Canada. Other documents have been obtained through developing special relationships with the United Church of Canada archives and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation,” she said.
Mount Elgin, one of the earliest and longest-running residential schools in Canada, was open from 1851 to 1946 and was used as a day school after 1967. At various times, it was operated by the Wesleyan Methodist Society, the United Church and the Department of Indian Affairs.
Working with “a select team” of Western University professors and researchers, Chippewas of the Thames officials have used “several drone technologies” with high-resolution photography to assess sites associated with Mount Elgin, French wrote in the statement.
The team is working to ensure the investigation is conducted “thoroughly, confidentially, and ethically,” she added.
Friday’s update comes exactly one year after the First Nation said it would probe the Mount Elgin site for unmarked graves, a process that would take three to five years.
The update also comes on Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a statutory holiday implemented by the federal government in response to one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and following the revelations about suspected unmarked graves at sites of former residential schools in Western Canada.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s announcement last year that it had located what are believed to be around 200 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia was an “eye-opener” that pushed Chippewas of the Thames to start its investigation and help the community move forward, French said in an interview.
“It’s been that dark cloud that has been lingering over our community,” she said in reference to the generational effects Mount Elgin has had on families in the community, adding she hopes this inquiry can bring “healing” and “closure” to community members.
Besides Mount Elgin, Southwestern Ontario was home to the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford. The schools were part of a network of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous children across Canada, run by churches and the federal government with the goal of assimilating them into Euro-Canadian society. More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend them.
For French, the message “Every Child Matters” is what comes to mind when she thinks of Sept. 30, a day she notes has been recognized long before it became an official holiday.
“They were children that attended the schools,” she said. “They were children that were never given the opportunity to enjoy who they were as an Indigenous child. They weren’t given the opportunity to learn their language, to know their culture, to participate in their culture and to participate in those ceremonies.”
The timing of Friday’s announcement, she added, sends a message that “those children still matter to us.”