Chippewas seek to preserve last remnant of former residential school

MUNCEY— A London-area First Nation has launched a campaign to save the last remaining structure from one of only two residential schools in Southwestern Ontario.

The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, about 30 minutes southwest of London, plans to restore and preserve an old barn on the grounds of the former Mount Elgin Industrial Institute residential school.

“(The campaign is) to remember the stories of our residential school survivors as well as to never forget and honour them,” said Gina McGahey, director of language and culture for the Chippewas of the Thames Anishinaabe’aadziwin (meaning ‘Our way of life’) department.

“We know there are beams on this barn that have been engraved on by former students. We want to capture that and to be able to turn it into an interpretive centre, which would house Mount Elgin’s residential school history, as well as reclaim and revitalize our culture and language.”

Established in 1849, Mount Elgin Industrial Institute was one of the earliest residential schools to open in Canada. It opened its doors in 1850 with 13 students in its first year and closed in 1946, later operating as a day school after 1967.

Forced into hard labour on the residential school’s farm, children left poignant and painful memories of their experiences scrawled on the walls of one barn that survived the school.

“Ponty John was around here without a friend. So long boys,” reads one of several faded etchings marked along the barn’s walls.

The scrawls continue from one post to the other: “L. E.W. was in here on July 9th 1926 working like hell.” “Edward Williams was here on June 26, 1919.”

Some of the earliest etchings date back to 1909, the latest from 1949. The most common fragments were simple, a name and a date.

“I’m sure that kids left their mark wherever they could,” David McLaren, a writer from Neyaashiinigamiing on the Bruce Peninsula, who authored two reports for the Ipperwash Inquiry, said of the written and chalked messages.

“Many of those markers you can see from the inscriptions there. They are marks of protest and reclamation (and) reclaiming language.”

The former residential school site was home to three barns, but only this one remains. No one seems to know when it was built, but at some point, the hayloft was reinforced with steel beams, McGahey said.

“The structure was originally barn wood, but a steel frame was added over time to strengthen it,” she said. “It’s in a very bad state right now (and) it needs a lot of repairs.”

She said the plan is to keep its original structure and not move the location.

Mount Elgin Industrial Institute was one of two residential schools in Southwestern Ontario. The other was the Mohawk Institute residential school near Brantford.

The residential school system was designed by the government and church to separate Indigenous children from their families with the aim of assimilating them into Euro-Canadian culture. More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended 139 of the schools that operated between the 1830s and 1996.

Its grim legacy came under renewed scrutiny following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools in western Canada this past summer.

Now, others have joined the search for graves, too.

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation said last week it would begin searching this fall for unmarked graves on the grounds of Mount Elgin. The announcement came on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and marked the beginnings of the Save the Barn campaign.

The goal, McGahey said, is to raise enough money for the barn to become two things: an interpretative museum to learn about Mount Elgin’s history, and space for Chippewa people to relearn all the skills, language and teachings lost over generations.

“We don’t want our children not knowing who they are,” she said. “You have to understand your past to move forward.”

Crisis support for survivors and others affected by residential schools is available through a 24/7 hotline at 1-866-925-4419.

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-The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

What: The Save the Barn campaign to restore the last remaining structure of the Mount Elgin Industrial Institute residential school. Donations can be made directly to Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.

How: Interact e-transfer to Finance Director Brenda French at [email protected]. Include the message “Save the Barn.” Cheques also are accepted and can be mailed or dropped off in person at 320 Chippewa Road, Muncey, ON. NOL 1Y0

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