Nancy Deleary still remembers seeing the name of her great-uncle, Rufus Shilling, inscribed on the bricks of the historic barn that was once part of the Mt. Elgin Industrial School.
But after years of wear and tear and vandalism, that part of the wall was demolished, she said.
She wants to see the barn, the last standing structure of the boarding school, saved before history is lost. But the dream comes at a high price.
That’s why the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, or Deshkan Ziibiing in Anishinabek, is launching a music and crafts festival this November in London, Ontario. They are raising money toward the $4 million goal to turn the barn into a museum and cultural learning center.
The three-day festival, Gawii Wiikaa Ga-Nendimisii (Never Ever Forget Me) will fill the Western Fair District with Indigenous art, food, history and song November 18-20. Bands such as The Halluci Nation, formerly known as A Tribe Called Red and Six Nations of the Grand River DJ Shub will headline the festival along with bands Junkhouse, Digging Roots, Julian Taylor, Ruby Waters and many others.
The festival seeks to address the loss due to “cultural genocide” which has diminished indigenous traditional and cultural ways of life, organizers said.
For Deleary, it’s a step closer to his ten-year dream of seeing the barn preserved.
“The land is a very sacred and sensitive place because we know that many of our residential school children did not survive the atrocities that were inflicted on them here,” said Deleary, cultural coordinator and member of the First Nation.
Seven generations of his family have attended the institution over the 100 years of operation. “So it’s going to take us 100 years to undo the damage that’s been done,” she said.
“We don’t have enough space”
The urgent need for a learning center increases as the number of fluent speakers of the language decreases, Deleary said.
This need is a direct result of the loss of residential schools, said Gina McGahey, Anishinaabe’aadziwin director for the Chippewas of the Thames language and culture.
“Space is a very big issue within our country, we don’t have enough space and we’ve had to be very innovative over the past few years in how we deliver the programs we do,” McGahey said.
“This is the time when we can give that back to our children, so that they don’t get lost, so that we don’t have social ills that we suffer from, and so it’s important for future generations.”
The project proposal for the dream facility, which would house all of their cultural revitalization programming, has a price tag of $4 million. Fundraising is in its early stages, but they have commitments from outside agencies.
“We have never really seen another event like this”
For McGahey, the concert is an opportunity to remember their past but also to make progress towards the future.
“We’ve never really seen another event quite like this,” said Shadia Ali, communications manager for Chippewas of the Thames. “You know, music heals. It’s communication beyond words. Music touches every culture,” she said. “So we wanted to share our native culture.”
The event will be the region’s first major Indigenous music festival and will feature local artists from the Chippewa of the Thames, Munsee-Delaware and Oneida First Nations, as well as modern Indigenous music from a “multitude of genres”. , she said.
This will be a celebration of culture to honor residential school survivors and those who never returned home, as well as a learning opportunity for attendees to learn about the Mt. Elgin Industrial School.
“We recognize and know that we all need to work together to create a better place for the future of all of our children,” Deleary said.
“Our ancestors worked hard so that we could survive. But now we have to think about how we not only have to survive, but we have to start building ourselves to thrive on this earth.”
The Mount Elgin Industrial School operated between 1841 and 1949 on the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, located approximately 25 km southwest of London.
Gawii Wiikaa Ga-Nendimisii (Never Ever Forget Me) is a collaboration between the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, London’s Music Tourism and the Western Fair District.
For more information, visit chippewaorangeshirtday.com/#GWGN. Tickets are on sale at westernfairdistrict.com. Supplier requests are always open.
Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.
A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counseling and crisis support is also available 24/7 through the Hope for Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.