Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Listen up, Ottawa: Past efforts to assimilate First Nations failed

By Karl Hele

Opinion column

GARDEN RIVER FIRST NATION - Over 140 years ago, in 1871, an Anglican Church minister, Rev. Edward Francis Wilson, arrived in Sault Ste. Marie with a vision.

While not entirely original, as other residential and boarding schools for Indians existed in Canada and the United States as well as in the Sault region since the 1820s, Wilson’s vision for Indian education became the Shingwauk Home.

Initially, the home opened on the Anglican mission grounds alongside the banks of the Garden River on Sept. 22, 1873; six days later it burned to the ground. Undeterred, and with the support of Chiefs Ogista and Bukawajjunee, Wilson rebuilt the school in 1874. From 1874 to 1970, the Shingwauk institution served as placed of ‘education’ for Aboriginal children from across Canada. Since 1971, Algoma University had occupied the home.

Very early into his career as an educator, principal, and missionary to the Anishinaabeg of the Sault region and Lake Superior, Wilson sought government support for his various visions. Obtaining $1,000 for erecting the school and $60 per enrolled child to a maximum of 30 students, from Indian Affairs, Wilson hoped “to improve and civilize the Indians as a people” with the established aim of utilizing child labour as to “carry it on in the most economical manner possible with the view of eventually making it as far as possible self-supporting.”

From 1871 to 1893, Wilson lobbied the Department of Indian Affairs to fully fund his venture and visions. Full government funding only came a few years after Wilson’s retirement in 1893.

In conjunction with his education vision, Wilson feared for his graduates. He hoped by establishing a new community there was hope for the educated Indian. To this end, Wilson purchased 123 acres at the mouth of the Batchawana River in 1874 where, in 1876, he requested William Van Abbott, Indian lands agent, to grant him the right of pre-empting up to 2,000 additional acres. Here, Wilson hoped that the male and female graduates would join together to create a community that “offer(ed a) more hopeful appearance” than the Indian reserves. Moreover, he predicted that the ‘old’ reserves would disappear “as the old people die(d) off.”

Wilson feared, as did many others in the late 19th century, that graduated students when they returned to their reserves would revert back to barbarism. For instance, Wilson informed Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie in 1875 “that the best educated are the most immoral in their habits” when they returned to their reserve.

The new reserve, as proposed by Wilson, would consist of 2,000 acres that would be surveyed in 30-acre plots with a central village, which would be called the Shingwauk Settlement. Graduates, young males at first, would be employed to clear land for a mission farm before beginning to clear their own plots. Under a farming couple’s guidance, the men would clear their plots while working the mission farm. The men would receive 75 cents a day for work on the mission farm of which they were required to place $2 a week in a savings bank run by Wilson. Once the first acre of a plot was cleared, a $10 bonus would be paid into the savings account and once five acres were cleared a ‘deed’ would be given to the young man provided he pay the cost of the remaining 25 acres. A further $10 bonus would be placed in the savings bank once a house was built. The savings account could be used to aid the clearing of their land, the purchase of tools, stock, and building supplies as well as the rental of a horse team, wagon, plough, and harrow. Most of these ‘withdrawals’ would simply be internal bank transfers. Actual access to the account only took place once in possession of the 30-acre deed.

In addition to the establishment of farms, Wilson also proposed that young men interested in pursuing commercial fishing live in the Shingwauk Settlement. The fishermen would be supplied with sheds, boats, and nets, which would be paid for by giving the mission (i.e. Wilson) 50% of their profits. To this end, Wilson sought to purchase large fishing boats and nets as well as erect a building to salt and pack fish.

A third group of men, proposed to settle in Wilson’s community, would be carpenters. These individuals would aid in the construction of homes, farm buildings, furniture, and barrels. As the proposed Shingwauk Settlement grew, Wilson foresaw the establishment of other trades in the community all drawn from the Shingwauk Home’s graduates.

Other details of Wilson’s scheme included a ban on selling the deeded 30 acres to anyone, but the mission, the removal of those deemed lazy and unco-operative, as well as the employment of the female graduates in suitable female trades “till such time as they might be called to share a house with some young man on this new civilized reserve in the honorable position of wife.”

While Wilson’s plans never came to pass on the Batchawana River, he likely was unable to raise enough money or interest in the scheme, his vision, however, did come to pass elsewhere. In 1902, the Files Hills colony on the Peepeekisis Indian Reserve in Saskatchewan was created as a farming community for graduates of residential schools to prevent them from reverting to tribal traditions after graduation. While not directly tied to the Shingwauk Settlement scheme, Wilson’s efforts to interest the Department of Indian Affairs in creating a civilized settlement of educated and assimilated Indian farmers and fishers likely influenced those who created File Hills less than 30 years later. Like all schemes to educate and assimilate or integrate Indians into the File Hills colony failed. This was despite the interest many First Nations people had in acquiring an education and farming skills. Perhaps current governments could learn from past attempts at educating and assimilating Indians.

Karl S. Hele is an associate professor at Concordia University. He grew up north of Sault Ste. Marie and attended White Pines and Algoma University. His doctorate, from McGill in 2003, examined the Anishinaabe/missionary interaction in the Sault. His current work continues to explore the dynamics of the region’s history. He is also a member of Garden River First Nation. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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