Elsipogtog: residential school graves
open old wounds for New Brunswick reserve

Elsipogtog First Nation (River of Fire) is a Mi’kmaq First Nations community which sits on the shores of the Richibucto River in Eastern New Brunswick. Formally known as Big Cove and Richibucto Indian Reserve it has a population of 3,400 people, making it the largest reserve in the province. 

Chief Misel Alguimou (Michael Augustine) signed the Peace and Friendship Treaty with the British in 1761. Elsipogtog was established in 1802 with more than 50,000 acres of land to practice their traditional ways. Despite the signing of the treaty, the First Nation’s land has gradually been stolen by settlers. It has since been reduced to just over 4,000 acres.

Councilor Ruth Levi holds the flag of Elsipogtog First Nation in a crowd of people during Canada Day/ Resilience Day march.

This is the land where I grew up, the place that I call home. Our community has suffered a lot of pain over the years due to unspeakable tragedy and loss. Life on the reservation can be heartbreaking at times. It feels like you can never get a break between tragedies, it is always one after another.

The COVID-19 checkpoint going into Elsipogtog First Nation. The checkpoint was established to protect people on the reserve from contracting the virus.
Keith Milliea smokes a cigarette while working the COVID-19 checkpoint.

Between 1930 and 1967 many Elsipogog First Nations children were sent to Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia, where some were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. While attending the school, children were also forbidden from speaking their own language or practising their cultural traditions. Following the closure of that school, children from Elsipogtog attended federal day schools on the reserve including Big Cove Federal Indian Day School which were also notorious for abusing students.

The uncovering of mass graves at residential schools across the country, which began with the 215 discovery in British Columbia in May renewed deep wounds that have been inflicted upon several generations of Elsipogtog First Nations people. Although there were no graves discovered Shubenacadie, to date there have been more than 6,000 graves uncovered across Canada, with many more sites left to search.

Shoes were placed around a statue at the Saint Anne church in Elsipogtog in honour of the children who were found.
Banners saying “Every child matters” and “Bring our children home” hang in front of the RCMP Station in Elsipogtog.

This summer I traveled back home to Elsipogtog from Fredericton, where I now live, to document the community as they gathered to mark Indigenous People’s Day and Canada Day, which happen to fall just nine days apart.

When I came home the first time for Indigenous People’s Day on June 21 my brother came to pick me up in a golf cart. We drove around the reservation to see what was happening, I felt a sense of happiness to be back in my community. It was a beautiful sunny day and many people were out and about, I could feel people’s happiness and joy that day.

Dennis Simon, the father of the photographer poses for a photo outside the family home. Like many people of his generation, he attended the Big Cove Federal Indian Day School. “The rest of Canada acknowledges that we Aboriginal people have unique rights. We can exercise our rights and we should be grateful that we can hunt and fish and gather without getting hassled by anybody.”
Desmond Simon, right, play cornhole with his cousin Todd Simon, by the Richibucto River on Indigenous People’s Day. Desmond’s father Dennis picked up his son’s camera to snap the picture of his son while he took a break from shooting.
Teagan Copage of Elsipogtog First Nation. I show my pride everyday in being indigenous… What makes me proud is the beauty within our way. Not even just like the culture, but just who we are as people kind of. You know what I mean?”

As the sun set on Indigenous Peoples Day I met Brodie Peters at the Lone Eagle Treatment Centre. We sat near the arbor, where many people practice ceremony, specifically the Sundance ceremony, and share thoughts about life and the current state of affairs. There is a certain feeling of connection and comfort when at these sacred grounds. Many people from the community come to pray and just spend time there. 

Brodie Petters of Elsipogtog First Nation poses for a portrait in front of the White Eagle Sundance grounds on the reserve. “Today was a pretty good day. With Indigenous peoples day, I think it’s important that we celebrate those kinds of days. There’s Indigenous people’s day. And here we have Elsipogtog Day, those days are really important to us as L’nu, Mi’kmaq. And I think it’s important because native people getting together, that’s medicine in itself”
Close up of Brodie Peters’ Sundance medallion.

Because of the uncovering of the mass graves, people on the reserve were not celebrating Canada Day in Elsipogtog this year, opting instead to rename it Resilience Day. So on July 1 the community gathered to march in solidarity with one another and First Nations across Canada. People were singing and smiling, united in support of those who have suffered. Seeing the chief of Elsipogtog, Aaron Sock, march with his people was very inspiring, you could hear the emotion in his voice when he spoke. He really loves his people and he showed it that day.

Community members of Elsipogtog First Nation marching during Canada Day/ Resilience day led by councilor Ruth Levi and Elder Serena Francis.
Chief Aaron Sock hugs a member of the community after giving a speech before Resilience Day march.
Chief Aaron Sock is seen surrounded by members of the Elsipogtog community during the march on Canada Day/ Resilience Day.
Members of the community gather after the march for some final words.

The reason we grieved when the graves were uncovered is because the trauma that Indigenous people have faced at the hands of settlers is all too familiar. While every tragedy is unique, the harm that has been inflicted is universal.

That afternoon I spoke to Marilyn Simon-Ingram of Elsipogtog First Nation, who is a residential school survivor. I could hear the emotion and hurt in her voice when she recalled the recent tragic discoveries across Canada. “I died with each child that was pulled up. I died more and more everyday inside. So I could only imagine the pain that they went through. I am a residential school survivor, but more important is I am a survivor and I made a pledge that I would speak up for all survivors.”

Residential school survivor Marilyn Simon-Ingram poses for a portrait beside a memorial for Shubenacadie Residential School in front of the Elsipogtog band office on Canada Day. “The one thing that a lot of us were amazed about was that if you covered up the name, you would think it was the same child telling the story. Instead of children, it sounded like one child”

Brady Perley-Francis was a beloved person in our community. He was killed in a hit and run late one winter night. Although a man was charged with manslaughter in his death he was found not guilty due to a lack of evidence.  Following the decision the Crown decided not to appeal the decision and no further charges were laid. There was no justice for Brady. It feels as if the justice system put in place in Canada is meant to keep First Nations people down.

 A photo of CC’s Entertainment Centre in Elsipogtog, which has had a sign demanding “Justice For Brady” ever since he passed away.
Brady Perley-Francis’s Facebook profile photo which remains up until this day. (Facebook photo)
A member of Elsipogtog First Nation is seen driving around the reserve from inside my father Dennis Simon’s car.

Brady is just one of the many tragic stories that come from Elsipogtog. Drug and alcohol abuse plague the community. Growing up, I have personally seen many people lose their lives to substance abuse and it hurts to see my people in pain, both emotionally and physically. Residential schools and the trauma our parents, grandparents, and family members have gone through, we, the current generation experience this trauma too. This can lead to a hard life on the reserve.

Jim Boucher who is a non-Indigenous person from Rexton, New Brunswick, poses for a photo on his porch. He has family that are Indigenous and says he feels deeply about the issues which First Nations in Canada have to deal with.
The sign for the Lone Eagle Treatment Centre and White Eagle Sundance, where many member of Elsipogtog First Nation go to heal and pray.
My uncle Lloyd Simon, who inspired me to become a Sundancer and follow the traditional road, poses for a photo on Indigenous People’s Day. “Sweat lodge kind of gave me a better, a better chance to use my soul, my spirit. When it comes to prayer, individual prayers and songs and fasting came along afterwards. So, I kind of hopped on the traditional road – the traditional journey from then on, because it made sense to me and it really felt good.”

But life in on the res can also be very beautiful. As Brodie Peters put it: “Growing up, you see a lot of our people, Native people, you see them, some struggling and some succeeding… but one thing I noticed growing up is that our people of Elsipogtog are so compassionate. And when they need it the most, they come together. And I find that in those times of need, our people will be there for each other. I’ve seen that my whole life growing up.”

Photo of two empty chairs near the beach while children swim in the Richibucto River in the background.

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Written By
Desmond Simon

Desmond Simon

Desmond Simon is a Mi'kmaq documentary filmmaker/photographer from Elsipogtog First Nation, New Brunswick. He recently retired from the Canadian Armed Forces as a combat engineer. After serving eight years in the army he left to pursue his passion as a filmmaker/photographer because he feels the need to tell stories about his my culture and people. His work has been published in The Narhwal and Maclean's, to name just a few. He currently lives in Fredericton.