Forgetting and Remembering

Our research has uncovered two remarkable documents, both from 1906. One is an Annual Report by Principal of the Shingwauk Institute which sheds light on the thinking that went into the attempt to eliminate First Nations.  The other is a transcription of the oral traditions by which Anishnaabe culture did, in fact, survive.  Deprived of the children to whom to recount the rich and intricate Creation myths in which parables and other lessons for new generations are related, elders related their stories to an American ethnographer. These records are now the basis for cultural revitalization efforts across Northern Ontario.

Children played the central role - both the process of transmitting the culture and the attempt to eradicate it.  It's appropriate that they are the focus of the Remembering Project as well.

In her research into one of the children who attended the Shingwauk Institute, one of our volunteers in Ottawa unearthed a real nugget.  She found an annual report for the year 1906 by the Principal, George Ley King. 

I was struck by this document for two reasons.  The first is that the man’s granddaughter was my mother’s best friend growing up.  As a boy I met the man’s daughter, born at the very same Shingwauk Institute.  Like my own ancestors, George Ley King came from Toronto but ventured north to help build our nation and had found in the Anglican church an opportunity to do so.

I know the family to be loving, committed Canadians. Even when I read George’s words it is impossible for me to pretend that I don’t come from the same roots.

In an appeal for funding, he writes of the children he teaches as “the descendants of a destitute and benighted race.

To gather in these little ones from the filth and wretchedness of their camp and forest life… to teach them … to become clean, moral, useful men and women this, briefly, is the aim and object of our work… What I wish to emphasise is the fact that there are in Ontario today some 1,180 Indian children of school age receiving no education whatsoever.“

And he expresses hope for success: “the present unprecedented growth and development of our country, the increasing trend of civilization into new and unbroken territory – the Redman’s haunt – is [our] opportunity.”

“I plead especially for the children, our little aborigenes. They are now ours for the claiming.

(image from the Annual Report by Principal King)

The second reason this annual report left an impression was the year it covered, 1906. That same year featured prominently in the Anishnaabe sociology class I audited this past fall at Glendon College here in Toronto.  This class, by Anishnaabe scholar Maya Chacaby, was another highlight of my year.

While it may come as a surprise to some Canadians, the traditional beliefs and cultural practices of the Anishnaabe continue to this day.  They survived in that “new and unbroken territory” that King wrote about, even after the police came for the children.

The highlight of my year was the opportunity I had to participate in ceremony in an Anishnaabe community in October, some 400 km north of Sault Ste Marie.  It was an exhilarating experience to participate in the same activities that have been practiced for hundreds of years in the same lands.

Those traditions were passed down through the generations through elaborate story-telling rituals, generally by grandparents to grandchildren over many months, around this time of year.  They took the form of elaborate Creation stories and parables of the interaction between humans and other species that impart deeper truths about how we are to live on this earth.

Breaking up families disrupted the transmission, and teaching children contempt for their cultures and themselves made it even harder.

But the teaching carries on, and to help compensate for the broken chain of oral tradition we have a few texts that capture the old stories.  These texts now form the basis of an ambitious cultural revival underway across Northern Ontario, a process that my teacher at Glendon calls the “Long Remembering.” 

After a low point at the end of the 20th century, the number of Anishnaabemowin speakers is now rising. Drum circles are cropping up in many communities, where the songs are sung and the stories told.  Every medium of the 21st century is being put to the task as well – just check out the explosion of documentaries, graphic novels and indigenous TikTok channels.  We are living in a moment of cultural resurgence.

So why does the year 1906 matter? The most complete set of Creation stories was written down that year.  In our class Maya introduced us to the work of Kiigigepinasi'kwa (also known as Marie Syrette) and Kagige (John) Pinasi, two elders living on the northern shores of Lake Superior. Over the course of three years they related the stories to a travelling American ethnologist named William Jones.


By the time that Principal King wrote that First Nations children “are ours for the claiming,” two generations had already been taken away from their families to study at Shingwauk. Three more would follow before it closed its doors in 1970.  But today children are once again learning these stories.

The great news is that George Ley King did not succeed in his task.  Anishnaabe culture survived our efforts to extinguish it.  And I’ve been honoured to get to know Anishnaabe leaders today, like Maya, who are carrying forward that culture.

I want to salute the work that Elinor and the rest of you are doing.  You are learning about a generation of children who were deprived of their role in passing down the values and traditions of a civilization.  In the process you are showing our respect for that civilization.  And, in the process, ensuring that Canada never tries to extinguish it again.

As we embark on a second year of the Remembering Project, thanks to all of you who have joined us in this work.

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