First Nations historian’s new book details ‘relentless’ children’s labour at Mt. Elgin residential school

For Mary Jane Logan McCallum, researching the history of student life at Mount Elgin Boarding School is personal.

The history professor and member of the Munsee-Delaware Nation first heard about the institution through mentions of her great-grandfather and brother attending.

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Now she has written a new book detailing the exploitation of child labor in residential homes – focusing on the everyday gendered labor of boys and girls between 1890 and 1915. The facility operated on Chippewa of the Thames First Nation for more than 100 years, around 25 km southwest of London.

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation housed an Indian Residential School called the Mt Elgin Industrial Institute from 1841 to 1949. It was operated by the Wesleyan Methodist Society and later by the Home Board of Missions of the United Church of Canada. (United Church of Canada Archives)

“There’s a deep sense of injustice,” she said.

Her research – which looked at old maps, photos, school reports, letters and financial documents – revealed that students and parents felt that the amount of work was detrimental to academic learning and physical well-being. Housework by girls and farm work by boys.

The daily work in the school was done by the children due to “scarce” funding. Education at the school prepared students for the “lowest levels of the social hierarchy” in Canadian society, she said.

The school “is not a symbol of education, but of hunger, impoverishment, loneliness, punishment, and relentless hard work,” wrote Mary Jane in the book.

The title, Nii Ndahlohke, translates to “I work” in Lunaape, the Munsee-Delaware language.

The book is not the “definitive history of this school,” she said. “This is one story among many that we can learn something from.”

The loss of language, culture and tradition could be felt

May Jane’s brother, Ian McCallum, translated some vocabulary from the book into Lunaape. He is the only advanced speaker of the Lunaape language in the nation of Munsee-Delaware, a language classified as critically endangered by UNESCO.

He found there was a lack of information about Mount Elgin Industrial School — particularly what boys and girls were doing there, he said. Those stories weren’t often heard at home, but the loss was.

A woman is smiling and wearing a striped shirt and scarf
The great-grandfather of historian Mary Jane Logan McCallum and his siblings attended Mount Elgin Industrial School between 1904 and 1912, she says. McCallum is Professor of History and Canada’s Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, History and Archives. (Submitted by Mary Jane Logan McCallum)

“The legacy in terms of the loss of language and culture and tradition was definitely felt,” said Ian.

“This is a very dark period in Canadian history and a very dark period for Indigenous history,” he said. The stories told in the book are important in recognizing what his ancestors and family members went through so “we can make sure this never happens again.”

Book will be teaching aid

Mary Jane hopes the book can be used as a teaching tool for elementary schools.

“Hopefully it’s written in a way that everyone enjoys reading, but we wanted to specifically address the experiences of children who are the same age as those who are being taught in schools,” she said.

She is currently visiting professor of history at Western University while pursuing a sabbatical at the University of Winnipeg. She is also Canada’s Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, History and Archives.

Black and orange beadwork
Beadwork artist Donna Noah created this piece for the book and will be speaking at the launch at Huron University College on Monday afternoon. (Submitted by Mary Jane Logan McCallum)

The book launch for Nii Ndahlohke will be held on Monday, September 26 from 3:30-5:30 p.m. in the Huron University College Auditorium in association with the Huron Community History Centre.

Mary Jane is accompanied by a panel that includes translator Ian and bead artist Donna Noah, who created a piece featured in the book.

Proceeds from book sales go to Indigenous language and history projects like Save the Barn, a campaign to convert a barn at Mt Elgin Residential School into a cultural center in Chippewa for the Thames First Nation, she said.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been established to support former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.