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First Nations historian's new book details 'relentless' children's labour at Mt. Elgin residential school

For Mary Jane Logan McCallum, researching the history of student life at Mount Elgin's residential school is personal. The history professor and member of Munsee-Delaware nation first heard about the institution from mentions of her great grandfather and his brother attending. 

The book titled, ‘Nii Ndahlohke,’ means 'I work' in the Lunaape language

Black and white photo of seven youth doing laundry inside a building
Students are pictured doing laundry around 1909 at Mount Elgin Industrial School located on Chippewa of the Thames First Nation. Student labour was used to run the farm and residential school, historian says. (United Church of Canada Archives)

For Mary Jane Logan McCallum, researching the history of student life at Mount Elgin's residential school is personal. 

The history professor and member of Munsee-Delaware nation first heard about the institution from mentions of her great grandfather and his brother attending. 

Now she's written a new book outlining the exploitation of children's labour in residential schooling — focused on the daily gendered labour of boys' and girls' between 1890 and 1915. The institution operated for more than 100 years on Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, located about 25 km southwest of London.

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation was home to an Indian Residential School from 1841 to 1949 called the Mt. Elgin Industrial Institute. It was run by the Wesleyan Methodist Society, and later by the United Church of Canada’s Home Board of Missions. (United Church of Canada archives)

"There's a profound sense of unfairness," she said.

Her research — which delved into old maps, photographs, school reports, letters and financial documents — found students and parents felt the amount of work was harmful to academic learning and physical well-being. Domestic work done by girls and farm labour work by boys.

The day-to-day labour at the school was done by the children due to "miserly" funding. The training at the school set students up for "lowest levels of the social hierarchy" in Canadian society, she said. 

The school "is a symbol not of education but of hunger, impoverishment, loneliness, punishment, and relentless hard work," Mary Jane wrote in the book. 

The title, Nii Ndahlohke, is translated to "I work" in Lunaape, the Munsee-Delaware language. 

The book is not the "definitive history of this school," she said. "This is one history among many that we can learn about."

Loss of language, culture and tradition were felt

May Jane's brother, Ian McCallum, translated some vocabulary in the book to Lunaape. He is the only intermediate Lunaape language speaker at the Munsee-Delaware nation, a UNESCO critically endangered language. 

He found there was a lack of information about Mount Elgin Industrial School — especially what boys and girls did there, he said. These stories weren't often heard at home, but the loss was.

A woman smiles wearing a striped shirt and scarf
Historian Mary Jane Logan McCallum's great grandfather and his siblings attended Mount Elgin Industrial School around the years 1904 to 1912, she says. McCallum is a history professor and Canada's research chair in Indigenous people, history and archives. (Submitted by Mary Jane Logan McCallum)

"The legacy in terms of loss of language and loss of culture and tradition were definitely felt," Ian said. 

"This is a very dark period of Canadian history and a very dark period for Indigenous peoples' histories," he said. The stories shared in the book are important in acknowledging what his ancestors and family members went through, so "we can make sure that this never happens again."

Book will be teaching resource 

Mary Jane hopes the book can be used as a teaching resource for elementary schools. 

"It's written, hopefully, in a way that everybody finds enjoyable to read, but we wanted to speak specifically to the experience of kids that were the same age as the ones that might be taught this in schools," she said. 

She currently works as a visiting professor in history at Western University while on sabbatical from the University of Winnipeg. She is also Canada's research chair in Indigenous people, history and archives. 

Black and orange beadwork
Beadwork artist Donna Noah created this piece for the book and will be speaking at Huron University College Monday afternoon at the launch. (Submitted by Mary Jane Logan McCallum )

The book launch for Nii Ndahlohke takes place at Huron University College's auditorium on Monday, Sept. 26, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in partnership with the Huron Community History Centre.

Mary Jane will be joined by a panel including translator Ian and beadwork artist Donna Noah, who created a piece published in the book. 

Proceeds from book sales to Indigenous language and history projects such as 'Save the Barn,' a campaign to turn a barn from the Mt. Elgin residential school into a cultural centre at Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, she said. 

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Both is a reporter for CBC London. She holds a master's degree in journalism and communication from Western University. You can reach her at michelle.both@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @michellelboth.

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