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The Notorious Indian Residential School That Wasn’t a Horror Chamber After All

The notorious Indian residential school that wasn’t a horror chamber after all

By Robert MacBain

A former Indian residential school in northwestern Ontario is widely regarded as being one of the worst in Canadian history. This is primarily because of the way it is misrepresented in a book that is being used in more than 65,000 classrooms across Canada and the United States.

The Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora

Children reading the late Gord Downie’s book Secret Path see drawings of nuns in habits at what is purported to be Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, delousing naked Ojibway boys who cover their genitals with their hands. A male with a large white cross on his chest drags a screaming child into a building. A nun in a habit pulls a half-naked boy’s ear making him scream in pain.

This by itself should suggest a highly inaccurate narrative.  Contrary to what Secret Path would have people believe, there were no nuns or priests at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School (C.J.) in Kenora, Ontario. The school was run by the Presbyterian Church, and none of the staff wore clerical garb.

The thousands of school children reading this book would be surprised to know that there were no prison-like conditions at the school from which 12-year-old Charlie (a.k.a. “Chanie”) Wenjack, or any other of the 149 Indigenous students enrolled in 1966, would have found it necessary to “escape.” 

In my just-released book, Lonely Death of an Ojibway Boy, I document the short life of Charlie Wenjack who died from exposure trying to walk 600 kms to his home after leaving an Ojibway trapper’s cabin where he had stayed for four days. The trapper, who was the uncle of the two boys with whom he walked away from the school “on the spur of the moment”, turned him loose with no food or water and told him to ask railway workers along the way for something to eat.

Today most Canadians probably think that Charlie left Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in October of 1966 because he was being abused. They would be surprised to know that a significant number of the students called Principal Stephen T. Robinson and his wife Agnes, the school matron, “Mom” and “Dad.” Several signed their letters “Love.” Many thanked them for being such good “parents” while their children were living away from their homes and families.

Except when they had to be in class or when meals were served, those children — most of whom, like Charlie, attended nearby public schools and only boarded at Cecilia Jeffrey — were relatively free to come and go as they pleased. Some would wander in the bush. Others would walk into Kenora to visit friends or hang out.

Stephen T. Robinson, the Principal from 1958 until a few months before Charlie Wenjack’s preventable death, would even arrange for sandwiches to be left in the bush so wandering children would not go hungry. He knew where the children were, and that they would be home in time for supper. They had most likely wandered away because they had not settled down after the freedom they had enjoyed during summer vacation back on their home Reserve. In fact, the senior boys had a trapline which extended all the way around Kenora.

What follows are more details that give a far more accurate picture of life at Cecilia Jeffrey than Gord Downie’s book presents. A teenage student at home for the holidays at a fly-in reserve about 520 kilometres northeast of Kenora, wrote on the back of the envelope “R.T. [return to] one of your Indian daughters” and addressed Mrs. Robinson as “Dearest Mom.” Towards the end of her letter, she wrote: “Moms say hi to Pops for me and happy holidays to both of you. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me during the year. I better close off with May God be with You. Love.” This letter was dated August 13, 1965, just a little over a year before Charlie Wenjack’s lifeless body was found lying beside the railway tracks just east of Kenora.

Former students wrote saying they received letters from their children, saying how much they enjoyed being at Cecilia Jeffrey. Students who had left to go to high school in North Bay wrote about how they were adapting to their new surroundings and expressed thanks for how well they had been cared for by the staff at Cecilia Jeffrey. Some former students who had left because they were needed at home or because of other pressing reasons wrote to ask if the school would take them back. Others said they wanted to come for a visit to renew acquaintances with both staff and friends. 

There is not so much as a hint in the more than 300 letters that I have read about any child being emotionally, physically, or sexually abused by any member of the staff at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School.

But none of that is reflected in Gorde Downie’s Secret Path. 

Cecilia Jeffrey students enjoy a meal in the school’s dining room

An entire generation of Canadian students is being seriously misinformed. Contrary to the widely publicized stories we read in the mainstream media about children being scarred for life by horrors they endured in the Indian residential schools, the letters from the students at Cecilia Jeffrey show a significant number of them to be well-adjusted young people brimming with self-confidence.

Consider, for example, the following excerpts from other letters that former students wrote to Principal Robinson.

“Bonjour monsieur. Well to get straight to the point or subject, the purpose of this brief note is to ask you about a sports jacket. I KNOW it was stupid to forget it but I was under the impression that I would get one here [High school in North Bay]. PLEASE SEND IT as soon as possible; or do you think I should ask the Indian Affairs about one? I haven’t been able to locate a Presbyterian church around here yet. Please send $25.00 because I will need it for fees, yearbook, school ring (unnecessary but desired!) a sweater to brighten up my wardrobe. Some of it for savings. Will be sure to spend wisely. PLEASE SEND SOON!!!”

“Here I am again still wandering around with my hands in my pockets. Just got in Winnipeg a week ago and now I am trying to settle down in Winnipeg, till I get my papers all here and complete…. As of yet, I want to join the air force and also the Manitoba Bell telephone System for a 5-year apprenticeship. Depends who will offer the best deal for a career and who asks first (ha).“

“I do hope everything is going along fine there. I presume everyone is doing well at the school. As for myself, I am doing just fine and dandy. North Bay is another Kenora on a bigger scale. I find it very interesting. I’m boarding with William Cromarty at Mrs. Roger Noe’s house. These people are good to us and make us right at home. We live about a mile and a half from the centre of North Bay.”

“Hello! I finally found out your address and had to ask everybody in the city. Ha. Well, I’m doing fine yet, and guess what? We had a four-day holiday, it’s because of the teachers, they had to have their practicing of hair styling. We had a lady come to our class and she’s a top hair stylist in the States. They have to work up to Sunday midnight. If I had known about this I would have gone to Kenora. But anyway I’ll be there next weekend for a visit.” 

“We are very sorry to see you [Principal Robinson] go as you and Agnes been so good to us and also to everybody. We don’t know how to express our thanks. As you are the only people that really put us on the right track so here’s hoping that we see a lot of you and Agnes.” 

Cecilia Jeffrey IRS students boarding a bus for their summer vacation at home

“I’d like to say for the boys & for myself that we are saying thanks for giving us the helping hand while we were at C.J.”

“Since I came here [Teulon Girls Home] I’ve looked forward to come over on Christmas holidays for a visit, but it’s hopeless, because I don’t have enough money to pay my way. Mrs. Nowels might think or does that I’m getting along fine. In which she is very mistaken. It maybe not be nice to say that but I’m telling you the truth. My heart aches for “Good Old C.J. School,” instead of this place. I’m fine again. I had a bad cold for several days. Hope all of you characters are doing fine. I’m saying a big, fat, juicy hello to the children. May God bless you all.” 

How different are these letter excerpts from the horror chamber picture that Gord Downie concocted in Secret Path, the book that is being read in more than 65,000 classrooms across North America.

It is indeed unfortunate that most of the C.J. students are no longer around to bear testimony to how much they benefited from their time at what is now widely considered to be one of the worst Indian residential schools in Canadian history. As shown above, a significant number of students said they felt loved and cared for at the residence.

What young Canadians would have heard if some of those former CJ students had been given an opportunity to tell them of life at Cecilia Jeffrey IRS is not known. But, alas, they will never have that opportunity.

Our school children deserve much better, and in the Lonely Death of an Ojibway Boy, I try to correct the terrible misrepresentation that Canadians have been given about the short life and tragic death of Charlie Wenjack.

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