Residential school survivors help transform Shingwauk Hall into art

A new chapter is being written in the history of Shingwauk Residential School.

People from across Canada gathered for the ceremonial opening of the Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall exhibition

Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall is an exhibit that attempts to reconcile the disturbing history of a Sault Ste. Marie residential school with the healing power of art. (Anglican Church Archives, Old Sun/Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

A new chapter is being written in the history of Shingwauk Residential School.

Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall is an art exhibit curated to honour the survivors of the Sault Ste. Marie residential school.

Shingwauk officially closed in 1975, and has been used for years as part of Algoma University's campus. More than 1,000 students pass through its halls annually, a far different reality from its disturbing past.

But to see the space transformed is a step towards reconciliation, says school survivor Mike Cachagee .

"The layout is significant, because when you entered the residential school at that time, it was through these doors," Cachagee told CBC's Up North. "When a person walks through the front doors the immediate thing they will see is a history of the residential schools."

"The photographs are here, we get to recognize a lot of our former schoolmates friends, and friends and relatives," he said. "What I'm trying to do is overcome the negativity. At my age, I can't afford to be negative anymore."

"As a survivor, it's a move in honouring me and those who attended here," he said.

Exhibit is survivor-driven, says curator

Krista McCracken, the curator of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at the Algoma University, said the Shingwauk's changing role from residential school to art exhibit is the first of its kind. Not just for its location, but for the role survivors had in creating the exhibit.

"[Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall] is very much survivor driven and really comes from decades of communication and  consultation with survivors to speak their truth in this space," McCracken said.

"[Curatorial staff] were just here to support the survivors," she added. "All the text, images, and design were really curated by the survivors of the Shingwauk Residential School."

It was that participation which will hopefully form some kind of redemption for survivors, Cachagee said.

"There's a lot of people who have died with a lot of anger, and I respect them for that," Cachagee said. "But if we're going to move on and my family is going to move on, and we're going heal as people we got to do this for ourselves. This is for us."

"And that's what this commemoration tells us. We're doing it for us."

Listen to the full interview about Reclaiming Shingwauk Hall in the audio clip below.

With files from Wendy Bird and Waubgeshig Rice