On a piece of land in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where the Anglican-run Shingwauk Indian Residential School once stood, a construction pit marks the future site of a centre that will help Indigenous people from across the country reconnect with their heritage.
Construction began earlier this year on a $12 million facility that, when completed in 2018, will house a research/discovery centre and archives chronicling the story of the Association of First Nations (AFN) and its predecessor, the National Indian Brotherhood, says Darrell Boissoneau, president of the Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig (Shingwauk University) and the board of the Shingwauk Education Trust (SET).
The land on which the centre is being built has been held in trust for Indigenous education since the 19th century. When the residential school closed in 1970, it reverted to the diocese of Algoma.
According to Archdeacon Harry Huskins, the executive archdeacon for Algoma who represents the church on the board of SET, Algoma University was then relocated to the former residential school building, and SET was eventually established to hold the rest of the property and assets. In addition to the diocese of Algoma, SET’s board includes representatives from Garden River First Nation, Batchewana First Nation and the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, a group made up of those who attended Shingwauk Residential School.
“This is huge,” Boissoneau told the Anglican Journal. “We all need to learn about what it is that is going on, and we feel that it is important that Canadians, and new Canadians, and the world, need to know [about the history of Indigenous peoples].”
Plans for such a centre have been in the works for nearly a decade, but Boissoneau said progress on securing funding stalled until 2015, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was replaced by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
The incoming Liberal MP for Sault Ste. Marie, Terry Sheehan, was supportive of the project, and he encouraged SET to reapply for funding. In 2016, they received $5.1 million, and earlier this year secured another $5.1 million. They received a further $2 million from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.
Two Row Architect, based in the Six Nations of the Grand River territory in southern Ontario, drew up the designs, which are inspired by traditional Ojibwe teaching lodges.
Boissoneau said the project’s centrepiece will be the National Chiefs’ Library, a collection of all the archives and files held by the Assembly of First Nations, as well as the treaties with the Canadian government and other artifacts of the history of Indigenous people’s relationship to Canada.
He has already reached out to former national chiefs like Phil Fontaine and asked if they would donate their personal papers to the centre.
When asked what the diocese of Algoma’s role in the centre has involved, Huskins said it is trying to be “as helpful and supportive as possible” to its Indigenous partners, who are “taking the lead in this.”
Boissoneau said he appreciates the way Anglicans have been involved in the project so far, given its involvement in the Indian residential school system.
“The church still has a very significant role to play in advocacy, being supportive of our ideas, embracing our worldview, bringing the message to the congregation,” he said. “[Huskins] is a strong advocate who really believes in the work we are doing and has supported what we’ve done all along.”
Boissoneau said the centre was partially inspired by the presidential libraries in the U.S., which house the papers and archives of more than a dozen U.S. presidents. He thinks a National Chiefs’ Library could help tell the story of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and its precursor, the National Indian Brotherhood.
But Boissoneau also sees the centre and library as a continuation of Chief Shingwauk’s vision to provide education for his people.
Shingwauk was an influential chief of the Ojibwa people in the Sault Ste. Marie area from the War of 1812 until his death in 1854. He was instrumental in setting up the first school for the Ojibwa in Sault Ste. Marie, and is remembered as a proponent of education that integrated modern industrial knowledge with Ojibwa culture, worldview and values.
Boissoneau thinks Shingwauk’s legacy is especially important to maintain in light of the challenges facing Indigenous young people in northern Ontario and across Canada.
According to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 Oji-Cree, Ojibwa, Cree and Algonquin First Nation communities in northern Ontario, more than 500 of its members have committed suicide between 1986-2016, of whom more than half were under age 20.
Boissoneau said he knows of another 22 that have occurred since January of this year alone.
In addition to institutional barriers Indigenous people face, such as lack of resources, inadequate infrastructure and deeply ingrained racist attitudes among some non-Indigenous Canadians, Boissoneau sees loss of identity as a critical factor in the suicide epidemic. And this is where thinks the new discovery centre can play an important role.
“It is our belief that the discovery centre and the National Chiefs’ Library is going to help fill that gap [in education],” he said. “This is going to be a place where our people are going to come…and are going to have an opportunity to learn about themselves, so they can find who they are so we can build pride and confidence in our young people.”