Coping with Complicity for Residential Schools

I have struggled in writing this next blogpost. I do believe that the work of reconciliation can be inspiring and full of hope, as our last article conveyed. 

But I don’t come at this as a neutral outsider. I believe all of us who have benefitted from what Canada has become owns the good as well as the bad. But I also had a direct ancestor who  played a role in expanding and deepening the residential school system.

I am a sixth-generation settler.  Every one of my 16 great-great-grandparents hail from the same corner of southwest England, except three who had already arrived here after their parents fled the U.S. as Loyalists. 

In my patrilineal line, a 22-year-old named Herbert Rowswell arrived in 1848 to settle in the Rideau Lakes area of Eastern Ontario. That land had been purchased by the British Government in 1783 from the Mississaugas to settle soldiers retreating from defeat in the U.S. War of Independence.

Herbert’s son George moved west in 1885 and became a businessman and went to “trade with the Natives” as our family’s genealogical records put it. He settled in a town called Beulah that had been founded just after the Cree and Chippewa people signed Treaty 2 in 1871. 

George Herbert arrived in Beulah weeks after the North-West Rebellion had been put down, likely weeks before Louis Riel was executed in nearby Regina.

He responded to the appeal another Ontarian had made to build a new school in nearby Elkhorn. He wrote a cheque and sent it to E. F. Wilson, Principal of the Shingwauk Institute in Sault Ste Marie. That much we knew. 

This summer I learned more.

I spent a few days looking through archives on the site of the Shingwauk Institute, now Algoma University. Even before I arrived one of the researchers recognized my name and said she had something to share with me.

Letters there between E. F. Wilson and George Herbert Rowswell revealed four facts: 

First, my great-grandfather’s donation was so large that it provided the impetus to set up the school in Elkhorn. $1000 may not sound like a lot today, but it was enough to convince Rev. Wilson to launch the school. Without George Herbert Rowswell’s cheque, neither the school, the Washakada Home for Girls or the nearby Kasota Home for Boys would have been established in 1888.

Second, the Washakada school was the first in a new class of residential school - one for which there was no local demand from First Nations communities. No one in the government had proposed a school be established at Elkhorn. The Anglican church was asked to run the school, but it was not established as the result of any plan or strategy set by church leaders.

The Washakada school was entirely the product of Canadian civil society. Rev. Wilson was a high-profile fundraiser, so successful in raising funds for the school he ran in Ontario that he convinced other Canadians to finance a series of ‘Branch Homes’ throughout Western Canada on the same model as his. And as you will have read in an earlier blog post, his model was a break of previous practices of instruction in First Nations languages and with some regard for First Nations cultural preferences. The Washakada school sought to create generations of children that spoke English, lived in English communities and held jobs useful for the economy of the new Confederation.

Third, George Herbert Rowswell joined with Rev. Wilson in his fundraising efforts to create more institutions like Shingwauk and Washakada. Wilson wanted these to be more than educational institutions; he was inspired by “homes” where working class orphans in England were required to live so that they might be transformed socially and spiritually, not simply trained. In applying this model to indigenous children, Wilson sought to “get hold of the children (and bring) them up to be useful members of society.”

This was a nation-building project. Through Wilson, Canadian civil society sought to accompany the government’s agenda of territorial expansion with a cultural agenda to spread an English-speaking protestant way of life from sea to sea to sea.

The most disturbing fact may be the last.The name Washakada comes from the Cree for “All that is good.” But this was not a reference to the agenda the school pursued. No, it was a name that Rev. Wilson ascribed to George Herbert Rowswell.

The implications weigh heavily on me. My great-grandfather must have accepted that name, and accepted that it be ascribed to the school whose creation he had financed.

It is a name drawn from the Cree language, given to an institution dedicated to the erasure of Cree culture.

And it includes the word “good.” Rev. Wilson and George Herbert Rowswell clearly thought they were doing something good. Both men devoted large amounts of their personal wealth to this cause. They appeared in public and appealed to other Canadians to join them in this task. And many Canadians did.

Ancestors such as these have created the country we inherited. 

I love this country, and have benefitted enormously from it. I grew up in the most peaceful environment imaginable, in suburban Ottawa. I spent my summers swimming in a blue lake by a rocky shore, surrounded by a pine forest I consider my spiritual home. I was educated at some of the best universities in the world. I became a diplomat and represented my country in lands far from our shores.

But Bob Reddish Gun enjoyed none of these privileges. He was the first Cree boy to die at the new school, in 1894 after six years of operation. He was joined two years later by a boy known only to history as “Dummy Bad Boy” according to the records of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And then by 24 other children before the school was finally closed in 1949.

I have to make this right. It comes with being Canadian. Our ancestors built this country for us, and I have benefitted from it. I can’t take those benefits and ignore the costs incurred along the way. 

I am my great-grandfather’s great-grandson. I carry his name. I carry his legacy, the bad as well as the good.

He contributed to building a nation in the way he thought was right. Now that we know where that led, he have to build in a different way.

Reverend E.F. Wilson with students. O.I.H. Annual Report – 1890.

Source: "Branching The Shingwauk Home: Residential School Networks And The Canadian Public, 1885-1918" by Nathalie Cross.




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