Descendants of former students at St. John's Eskimo Residential School in Shingle Point, Yukon, will have a chance to reconnect with historical materials personally touched by their family members.

Students' handmade cards for teachers, coloured artwork, letters, photos and teachers' diaries are among some of the records being brought back up north to Inuvik and Aklavik, N.W.T., where many of the residential school students called home.

"It's the living history of this region," says Val Marie Johnson, the historian delivering the collection of records to the communities.

"My desire is to have this material accessible to people whose living history this involves, as much as possible."

Johnson is a researcher and associate professor at St. Mary's University in Halifax. She came across the records during her research on the St. John's Eskimo residential school at Shingle Point, Yukon. The school, commissioned by the Anglican Church, is about 100 kilometres northwest of Aklavik, N.W.T., near the coast of the Beaufort Sea.

Shingle Point residential school

Shingle Point Mission, Yukon between 1929-1932, from the collection of Bessie Quirt photos, Diocese of the Arctic fonds. Bessie quirt was a staff member at the residential school between 1929 and 1931. (Anglican Church of Canada General Synod Archives)

The school was open between 1929 and 1936, and Johnson says her records show there were four Inuit staff at the school, along with other southern staff. The school's enrollment was highest at 44 students in 1931-32, and by 1936, students were moved to a new residential school in Aklavik, according to the Anglican Church of Canada's website.

Johnson started reaching out to family members of students and staff.

photo album shingle point

Johnson put together a binder full of archived photos from Shingle Point residential school. (Submitted by Val Johnson)

"I've traced a number of those descendants of those families and we've communicated by phone and email over a number of years," said Johnson.

This week, Johnson will be meeting them in person to share stories and a bit of history with each other.

"I'm terribly, terribly, happy. It's very emotional for me," said Johnson.

'I got goosebumps'

Until now, many of these records were only available in Toronto at the Anglican Church's archives.

So when Ethel-Jean Gruben first saw the material this week, she says it was a "wow" moment.

Although a lot the survivors have since died, Gruben said she recognized at least a few elders who are still alive in the photos — one in particular, just celebrated her 99th birthday.

"It was amazing. I got goosebumps," said Gruben, the manager of the Inuvialuit Cultural Centre. "The connection is so close to home."

Shingle Point residential school artwork

This is one of many crafts that Johnson discovered doing her research on the residential school at Shingle Point, Yukon. (Anglican Church of Canada General Synod Archives)

Gruben said the material included sensitive information like names of students, their parents, and stories of how they died.

As for the photos, Gruben noted that "they looked happy," although she said there were some sad stories behind the smiles.

"There was a little story in there about a little girl who went on a hunger strike … like many young boys and girls, she missed her parents."

It was a "humbling experience" and a privilege to view a bit of history "totally tied to reconciliation," she said.

"It's like, they're here with us. They were our trailblazers, they're the reason why we're here today," said Gruben.

Johnson says some of the material is sensitive, and is meeting with family members for permission prior to presenting the material to the public.  

Community members are invited to the Inuvik Centennial Library on Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. The Aklavik event is on Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Moose Kerr School library.

The Inuvialuit Cultural Centre is planning to house some of the material, but a date has not yet been determined.

With files from Peter Sheldon, Wanda McLeod