Families of residential school students optimistic after Ontario says it will ID, commemorate burial sites

Jay Jones of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association is among relatives of students who were forced to attend residential schools and are encouraged by Ontario’s three-year plan announced Tuesday to identify and commemorate burial sites.

Province promises $10M over 3 years

Ontario on Tuesday announced a three-year plan to identify, investigate and commemorate residential school burial sites in the province. Photo shows a classroom circa 1945 at St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. (Edmund Metatawabin collection/Algoma University)

The president of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association says Ontario's plan to commemorate residential school burial sites is a "substantial" step toward reconciliation. 

Jay Jones was reacting to provincial government news Tuesday that it has earmarking $10 million in funding over a three-year span to identify, investigate and commemorate residential school burial sites in Ontario. 

The announcement comes in the wake of the detection of the remains of an estimated 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

Operating in Sault Ste. Marie from 1874 to 1970, Shingwauk was run by the Anglican Church of Canada. It included students from Sarnia, James Bay Coast, northern Quebec and the United States.

Jay Jones, the son of Susie and Vernon Jones, both Shingwauk residential school survivors, is president of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association. (Algoma University)

Jones is the son of Susie and Vernon Jones, who were both forced to attend Shingwauk.

"If [the government] puts the effort forward like they did today, I just think it's wonderful."

He said there's no firm timeline for when a project of this scale will be completed.

"If it takes longer than three years, then it will take longer than three years. This is a delicate situation and there's a lot of people's emotions at stake."

'Just a horrendous act'

Jones also wants to ensure that mistakes made in the past aren't repeated.

"My ultimate goal is that this never happens to another child again, because these were children, and it's just a horrendous act toward a human being, much less a child, and I hope that Canada does embrace this in an educational manner." 

Edmund Metatawabin, a former chief of Fort Albany First Nation, kept in touch with Cree traditions thanks to his father, who was a trapper. (Erik White/CBC)

For Edmund Metatawabin, a commemoration of the land outside the St. Anne's residential school in Fort Albany would help close the books on the past.

Metatawabin has been one of those who first brought attention to the treatment of children at St. Anne's

"I have one great-uncle that was killed there. I don't know where the marker is, but I hope it's in the community cemetery."

Hope battle ends to find burial sites

Metatawabin said he also has colleagues and friends who lost brothers and close relations at the school.

"They have no idea what happened to them. [Some families] would come down the river to pick their kids from the school at the end of the school year.

"So they came down in June toward the end of that month, pick up their children. And the Catholic Church told them, 'Oh, your son died last fall,' and they made no attempt, a letter, a phone call, a message or whatever to inform the parents that their child had died.

"You can just imagine if you were told that your child died seven months ago? That's what happened," he said. "That was the reality of the treatment."

Although it has been a decades-long battle with the Ontario government to help identify the burial grounds, Metawabin is also encouraged by the province's decision to have the project led by the Indigenous community.

"We've been talking about this since 1992," he said. "We would like to put these remains to rest, but the main thing is that the remains have to be respected and then laid to rest."

With files from Angela Gemmill