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Many more tears to be shed

July 2021

With the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools in Kamloops, British Columbia and the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, fresh in my mind, I visited the remains of the abandoned Spanish Indian Residential School in Spanish, Ontario.

What became the Spanish Indian Residential School has its beginnings with the the Wikwemikong Industrial School for Girls, originally opened in 1862, in what is now the the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island. A school for boys followed in 1878, operated by Jesuits.

In 1885, both schools were destroyed by fire and subsequently rebuilt, but the boys school moved north of Manitoulin Island, outside of the Town of Spanish, along Lake Huron, becoming St. Peter Claver School for Boys. The girls’ school followed, St. Joseph’s School For Girls, situated on 400 acres of land next to the boys’ school.

For administrative purposes, the schools were considered one and operated under the name Spanish Indian Residential School, making it the largest residential school in Ontario, but they continued to operate as if they were separate schools. Both schools had subsistence farms, and the children were required to work them.

St. Joseph closed on 30 June 1962, but St. Peter Claver continued on for another three years, closing in 1965.

Both main school buildings remained standing, but St. Joseph was gutted by a fire in 1981, leaving only a ghostly stone shell. The St. Peter Claver building stood until 2004, when it was demolished. All the other outbuildings for for both schools are also gone.

The empty shell of the St. Joseph’s School For Girls building, devoid of a roof, the flooring and much of the interior, stands as a silent and haunting reminder of the horror and tragedy that became the Indian Residential Schools; a shameful chapter in Canada’s history.

When I visited the site of the school, I was blessed to be invited to take part in a traditional smudging ceremony, along with the children of former students at the Spanish schools, and others who were visiting from First Nation communities in Saskatchewan.

It’s unknown when the former Spanish school property will be searched for unmarked graves, or how many graves will ultimately be found, but we owe it to the memory of the children who came to the school, against their will, and never returned home.

Sources: Canada: 751 unmarked graves found at residential school – BBC News, Spanish Indian Residential Schools – Wikipedia.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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