I’ve recently been working with a batch of annual reports from the Shingwauk and Wawanosh Homes from 1877-1915. The first part of these reports have been digitized, OCR’d and are now available to download as PDFs. We’re still working with the reports from 1899-1915, but hope to have those available to the public by the end of the month.
Working with these reports has once again highlighted the challenges of working with colonial records, especially those which relate to historical trauma. The annual reports in question were written by the school principals and they also contain statements written by the Bishop of the Diocese of Algoma. They represent a very particular view of the residential school system, that of an Anglican missionary and organizations who were deeply invested in the assimilation of Indigenous communities.
The reports also offer photographs as snapshots of residential school life. There are a number of images that repeatedly appear in the annual reports, often showing students working or in school uniforms to highlight the ‘success’ of the residential school system. The annual reports included these photographs as evidence but also as a means of soliciting support for the residential schools. The photographs, as well as items made by student at Shingwauk/Wawanosh, were listed as for sale in every annual report.
The use of student labour to sustain residential schools is well documented. The nuanced way in which schools packaged the images of the students for profit is something that is still being explored in the archival and historical profession. In the case of the Shingwauk/Wawanosh Homes the student photographs were often paired with letters ‘written’ by students. I put written in quotes because it is clear that these letters were form letters, that the students were instructed (or forced) to write. The letters talk about how good life at Shingwauk is, the great things the students were learning, and how much they liked school. They are all similar in structure and tone, making the rote nature of the letters clear.
These letters were hard to work through as an archivist. They are a very vivid reminder of how little choice residential school students had. When combined with posed photographs these letters serve as a window into the assimilation and harm inflicted by residential school.
These records made me physically uncomfortable. But I was also reminded of their importance. The student lists included in the annual reports are some of the records we have of students at Shingwauk from 1900-1910. This scant evidence also speaks to challenges of the colonial record keeping system, the lack of material created from student perspectives, and the need to develop narratives using a range of historical sources.
As archivists and historians we need to talk about the emotional toll of working with records relating to historical trauma. We need to acknowledge the emotional and intellectual space it takes to process this material. We also need to think about how we are presenting this material to communities and the general public. The need for health support within archives can be very real and something that needs to be fought for in the age of ever shrinking budgets.