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Survivors of northeastern Ontario's residential schools weigh in on national historic site designation

The Portage La Prairie Residential School in Manitoba and Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia have received national historic site designations. Could a former residential school in northeastern Ontario be next?

2 of Canada's residential schools have been designated as national historic sites

Shirley Horn stands between her sister Alice, left, and her sister Frances. Pictured at St. John's residential school in Chapleau. (Submitted by Shirley Horn)

The legacy of Canada's residential school system continues to be felt decades after the last one closed its doors.

Residential schools separated more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their families across Canada. These church-run, government-funded schools were developed to prepare Indigenous children for white society.

Many former students continue to struggle with the abuse they suffered in these institutions, including many in northeastern Ontario.

Now, two of Canada's residential schools have been designated as national historic sites: Portage La Prairie Residential School in Manitoba and Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia.

The designation is in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call for commemoration.

What remains of St. Joseph's School for Girls in Spanish (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Intergenerational survivors

Some survivors in the northeast feel the recognition is an important step toward healing, while others fear it could trigger traumatic memories.

Rosemarie Erb considers herself to be an intergenerational survivor of the residential school system. Her mother, Harriet Goulais, attended St. Joseph's School for Girls in Spanish.

My fear is that it has also been passed to my son.— Rosemarie Erb

While her mother died in 2012, Erb says, her trauma lives on.

"That pain that my mom was often was ashamed of and that she would hide from us, has now been passed on to me," she said.

"My fear is that it has also been passed to my son."

Julie Ozawagosh, pictured during her time spent at St. Joseph's School for Girls in Spanish. (Submitted by Julie Ozawagosh)

'That's where awareness starts'

Erb said she's visited the remains of the school since her mother died. She said the designation could have the ability to help facilitate a conversation between residential school survivors and the rest of Canada.

"When we recognize and commemorate, even if it's just a physical structure ... with that whole history and that story is an opportunity that we can have a conversation. And that's where that awareness starts." 

That's where I have a blocked memory, from the travel to the residential school, I — I have no memory of that time.— Julie Ozawagosh

Julie Ozawagosh struggles to recall her time at St. Joseph's. The bits she can remember, she says are tinged with an overwhelming feeling of abandonment.

"Next thing you know, I'm at the residential school. And that's where I have a blocked memory, from the travel to the residential school, I — I have no memory of that time," she said.

'It serves as a memorial to the children passed on'

While Ozawagosh agrees designating residential school sites can offer healing for some, she worries that the designation could also open old wounds.

"Just knowing that those historic sites are about a residential sites ... it would bring back those memories." 

Shirley Horn is a survivor of both the St. John's school in Chapleau—which has been demolished and replaced with a subdivision—and Shingwauk school in Sault Ste. Marie, now part of Algoma University. 

She says recognition and commemoration are vital for those who suffered to move on.

"It serves as a memorial to the children passed on, and [children who] have either come out of it successfully or may not have come out of it at all," she said.

Officials with the Shingwauk Schools Centre say they submitted the former residential school for nomination to acquire a historic site designation in January. The nomination will be brought to the National Historic Sites and Monument Board at their fall meeting in November.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Juric

Reporter

Sam Juric is a CBC reporter and producer, through which she's had the privilege of telling stories from P.E.I., Sudbury and Nunavut.

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