Survivors of the Spanish Residential Schools are sharing their stories
The walls are speaking. The survivors of the Spanish Residential Schools are sharing their stories, even though a windowless, burned-out shell of a building is all that remains of a time that cannot be forgotten.
The Spanish schools, administered as one entity, (girls and boys, and later a high school), on the north shore of Lake Huron and west of Sudbury, was one of the largest in Ontario and the only school run by the Jesuits of English Canada.
The purpose of the residential schools was to eliminate all aspects of Aboriginal culture. Students had their hair cut short, they were dressed in uniforms, and their days were strictly regimented by timetables.
Former students of St. Joseph’s School for girls have spoken about the abuse, neglect and the removal of individual identities that occurred at the school. As part of the assimilation at the school, many of the nuns who operated the school only referred to the students by their assigned numbers and would not use the students’ names.
The students in Spanish would have been required to work on the subsistence farm operated by the school. Parents routinely complained about the quality and nutritional value of the meals being fed their children.
The consequences of residential schools are wide-reaching and include medical and psychosomatic conditions, mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. There also are cultural effects such as changes to spiritual practices, diminishment of languages and traditional knowledge.
“That residential school took the spirit out of my father, aunts and uncles,” says George Couchie of Nipissing First Nation, who has received accolades for his cultural training.
“When they got home, they were defeated. The only things they were taught were anger, violence and hate.
“The communities still struggle with the trauma from the schools,” Couchie says. “Trauma is not only the bad things that happen but also the good things that didn’t happen.
“As a kid, I didn’t want to be an ‘Indian.’ I was ashamed of the community, but now I realize I was embarrassed of all the trauma that was caused by the schools. The last residential school closed in 1996, but the ripple effects will last for seven generations.”
The burned-out shell is the girls’ school, St. Joseph’s, the boys’ school was located close by – toward the marina and what was the CPR branch line between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie.
The girls’ school was situated on 400 acres of land adjacent to the boys’ school and consisted of the main three-storey building with a basement, a laundry and barns. The majority of students at Spanish were from communities on Manitoulin Island and along the north shore of Lake Huron and Lake Superior.
Survivors of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, their families, communities and allies became catalysts in the growing healing movement, culminating in the introduction of the original Shingwauk Project in 1979 and the 1981 Shingwauk Reunion.
From these watershed events began the decades-long work of collecting, organizing and displaying photographs and other residential school materials, conducting research and educating the public.
“At the centre we have thousands of photographs, documents, testimonials and newsletters documenting the Spanish school,” says Krista McCracken, researcher/curator of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie.
“One of the unique things about these records is that the Spanish School included a photo lab and a photography club, where students learned how to use cameras and developed their own film. This means that some of the photographs we hold in the archives were taken by residential school students and they tend to be vastly different than the posed photographs that are common from the residential school era.”
The Spanish survivors had their first school reunion in 1988 and were one of the early groups to start organizing and coming together to talk about the residential school experience This marina monument is just south of the original girls’ school.
Visit what remains and the monuments on the north shore of Lake Huron, just off of Highway 17 – a tragic part of Canadian history, St. Peter Claver School for Boys, (1913-1965) St. Joseph’s School for Girls (1913-1965) and Garnier High School (1947-1965).
Back Roads Bill explores the backroads and back waters of Northern Ontario. He is the founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre and teaches part time at Nipissing University and Canadore College.