New Brunswick

Shubenacadie Residential School survivor dead at 96

Born in a wigwam and scooped up by "Indian" agents, Sarah Simon didn't let residential school define her, says her son.

Elsipogtog Elder Sarah Simon laid to rest after a long life of quiet service to family and community

Sarah Simon was the daughter of the late William Noel and Mary (Dedam) Francis of Asig Agtonog, near Kouchibouguac. (Submitted by Jesse Simon)

Members of Elsipogtog First Nation commemorated the life of Elder Sarah Simon this week.

Simon was a former band councillor, a mother of 19 and was believed to be the oldest survivor of the Shubenacadie residential school.

She died last weekend in hospital at the age of 96.

A funeral mass took place Wednesday morning at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Elsipogtog.

There was an outpouring of support when her remains were returned to the community Monday, said Jesse Simon, her son and a former Elsipogtog chief.

People all along the route stopped what they were doing to pay their respect, he said, as a long line of cars proceeded slowly from the funeral home in Richibucto to her house in Elsipogtog for a wake. 

A drum group heralded their arrival at the community.

The chief and a contingent of survivors led a walk down the last stretch to her door. 

It was a fitting tribute, said Jesse.

But he thinks his mother would have shunned the attention.

"She would have been like, 'Oh no, all this for me? Come on. Let's just have a mass and bury me beside my husband'."

Sarah's leadership style was to be "a quiet force behind the scenes," Jesse said.

Sarah Simon survived residential school and lived to tell the tales to her many children and grandchildren. She died in hospital in Ste-Anne-de-Kent on Saturday. (Submitted by Jesse Simon)

At times she stood up for social justice issues, but she led by example, not for praise or notoriety.

"She did what she did if she thought it was the right thing to do."

As far as Jesse knows, Sarah Simon's life began in a wigwam on an island in the Kouchibouguac area.

She "grew up with the seasons," he said, with her father and two brothers, helping the family to hunt in the summer and survive in the winter.

Sarah travelled back and forth to the United States with her dad selling baskets and axe handles.

She was in Saint John when she was "scooped up" by "Indian agents", said Jesse. 

They deemed it inappropriate for her to be living alone with her father.

The Shubenacadie residential school operated from 1929 to 1967. (CBC)

She spent most of her teenage years at Shubenacadie, said Jesse, but "managed to live and tell about it."

She never ate porridge again for the rest of her days, but the residential school experience didn't "define her," he said, partly because she was Catholic before she got there.

"She knew all their prayers, all in Mi'kmaw," said Jesse. "Except in the residential school she was not allowed to pray in her own language."

It was "unfortunate" she had to go through it, he said.

But her faith didn't waver.

After school, Sarah arrived in Elsipogtog and met the man who would become her husband.

Sarah Simon was predeceased by her husband Willie John Simon. (Submitted by Jesse Simon)

They were a good match, said Jesse.

His father lived off the land and spoke only Mi'kmaw, as Sarah had as a child. He was hardworking and "a bit of a powder keg" at times.

She was humble, level headed, resourceful and not afraid of dirty work.

She didn't shy away from conflict, either.

"She was able to stand up to anyone," said Jesse, including "Indian agents" and the federal government, "for the rights of her people."

She became a trusted band councillor who was left in charge when the chief was sick or absent.

But ultimately her priority was her family, he said.

Sarah told her children stories of residential school, including the struggles of some of her classmates.

Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic-run Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie, N.S. (Library and Archives Canada)

"I'm sure it brought back horrible memories for her," said Jesse, "but every time I asked her or every time my kids asked her, I think she thought of it as an educational moment and really laid it out. 

"She laid it out for my kids. She laid it out for me. She laid it out to my brothers and sisters."

But residential school was just "a small part of her life," he said.

It would take a year-long TV miniseries or 10 novels to tell all of her stories, said Jesse.

"There's 19 of us and each and every one probably have a different story."

Another formative lesson Jesse said he learned from his mother was that he didn't have to stay on the reserve.

She taught her children "that the reserve boundaries are invisible," he said.

She encouraged them to explore and to pursue art, music and education.

Sarah had learned early in life that "there was a bigger world out there," said Jesse.

"She had the faith to do anything that she wanted," he said, "despite Indian Affairs telling her not to, despite residential school telling her she couldn't."

With files from Information Morning Moncton