Waking up, Thursday, June 22, Evan and I hoped to visit Fort William Historical site, where I thought that St. Joseph’s Residential School would be located (for some reason). We arrived and were confused when we saw no monuments or recognition so we asked about it. There were two ladies working; the first had no idea and found it peculiar that we asked, while the second was quite enthusiastic and printed off all of AlgomaU Archives about St. Joseph’s. She said she had recently heard about the location of the school and thought it may be around Pope John Paul II. She suggested we called the school or Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) for more information.
On the way over, about 15 minutes, I called NAN and spoke with two individuals, ending up speaking with Felicia who was very helpful. She confirmed the site was around Pope John Paul II. We drove south on Franklin St. to see if we could find anything. We turned around and found Pope John Paul II where the kids were frolicking in the playground for lunch recess. I walked in to the office and asked if the school was on the site of St. Josephs. They said yes and that the playground is where the school was. They highlighted that they just built a community garden where the cemetery was and hope to have a memorial sign put in soon, though they did not know when to expect that. They suggested I speak with Mr. White to learn more, and it just so happened that he past by me as I turned.
**This is my interpretation and my memory which can be flawed but I am doing my best to share this rare and difficult to find information.**
Mr. White, the schools Indigenous Councilor was kind enough to talk with me for a good half an hour. He took me into his office, filled with many Ojibwe teachings, maps, words, and items – I had never seen so much Indigenous Culture in such a small space! I’d like to know where he got some of it so I can learn. Anyways… he told me about the school location, using the photos from Algoma U Archives. He was able to show me the orientation of the school and how things were laid out. Most of our research about the IRS’s we have seen thus far yield minimal information online, most stemming from AlgomaU, so it was really cool to see things come to life. But it was easily churned into something difficult to stomach as I learned about the treatment, the loss, and the intergenerational trauma.
He told me that there was a former site of St. Josephs, the first location, which was on Mission Island. He highlighted the Mission Island was home to St. Joseph’s boarding school, which most people knew as an orphanage for white children, not realizing that many First Nations children were taken from their homes and placed in the home as well. The school was out of site but accessible by the waterways (the highways of the time).
He highlighted that the school burned down and the children moved to St. Joseph’s here (at Pope John Paul II), where the playground is, stating that Pope John Paul II school building is likely situated on the field beside the old IRS.
He told me that their still exists ruins from the first school by Mission Island as many buildings back then had root cellars. He told me of a story from an elder of Fort William. The elder said that when the original school was destroyed, the cemetery and the buried bodies were supposed to be moved appropriately. When the horses were used to help with this process though, they refused to walk over a specific patch of grass. Day in and day out these horses would not walk over this spot. Mr. White explained that horses don’t do that unless there was something else, like children still buried underneath, likely in unmarked graves.
He showed me on google maps where we might be able to see this. From my memory, and our later visit to the viewpoint, this is the spot where the first St. Joseph’s IRS was, on Fort William First Nation land.
Evan and I did drive down Syndicate, crossed the railroad tracks, past the old bridge, and parked on the far side of the old building. We had our binoculars and looked as best we could. We could not see the root cellar as, like Mr. White had said, it was very overgrown. But I noticed something, I consider it a sign, a hint that we were looking at what we intended to pay tribute to.
When I starred to the right of the power line, that loud Raven nearby stopped its loud obnoxious call. Almost every time I directed my gaze to that spot the Raven stopped. I felt, in those moments of silence, it was time to lay some tobacco down in memory of all the children that attended the school.
I felt brokenhearted, sad, that this history was literally covered as it was pushed to the fringes of TBay and hidden from view by a solar panel field. No memorial exists to honour either site as of yet. I can only hope the spirits of those who attended rest peacefully and know that on they are not forgotten.
While I was with Mr. White, he asked me why I was interested, what I was hoping to learn. He highlighted that, though I want to learn, not to expect to be well received, opened up, see the vulnerability in those whom I come across. This is not the first time I’ve been told of the sensitivity of the nature of our visit. Essentially, we are two white people who stop in, request information, and leave. Though our intentions are MUCH beyond that, I understand the limitations of intentions and that the role of an ally (or a decent human) is to honour and respect those you come across. I respect and thank Mr. White for his honesty and openness. He shared personal stories with me, my eyes welled with his generosity to share so much to a stranger. Not to mention the honour I felt, and still feel, towards the gifts he gave me – some of which include a sacred medicine, his time, and knowledge.
Miigwetch to Mr. White, Felicia, all other people and spirits whose paths I crossed; Miigwetch to the Raven, the trees, the flowers, and the dirt roads for guiding us.
St. Joseph’s opened as an Orphanage in Fort William in 1870 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste Marie. The school accepted both white and Indigenous children so was considered an orphanage. It then evolved into a boarding school. I closed in 1907 as the CPR was being built closer to Thunder Bay. The school moved to the corner of Arthur and Franklin St. (the current playground of Pope John Paul II), closing in 1966.
Students came to St. Josephs from a variety of communities, primarily First Nations communities, however, many people just assumed this was an orphanage and did not know the happenings as a Residential School.