Manitoba History: Methodist Indian Day Schools and Indian Communities in Northern Manitoba, 1890-1925
by Susan Elaine Gray
The relationship that existed between Indian communities and Methodist Indian day schools in Northern Manitoba from 1890 to 1925 is an important theme in the study of Euro-Canadian attempts to educate Indians. During these decades, Methodist day schools in Indian communities played important roles in efforts at cultural assimilation. In the field of Indian day schools, existing material is scant. Residential schools have cast a long shadow in the sphere of historical work dealing with Indian education; much attention has been given to what happened in those situations in which children were completely removed from their home environments. A study by Ken Coates addresses Anglican Indian day schools in the Yukon Territory from 1890 to 1955 but there have been no published case studies of Methodist Indian day schools to date. 
To understand the educational procedures and developments that occurred in these schools, it is not sufficient to look only at factual matters such as achievement and attendance records, curricula, and programs for teacher training. Day schools provide the most poignant setting for the observation of interactions between Indian and white society since children daily divided their time between their parents’ homes and the day schools which attempted to immerse students in Euro-Canadian culture. Using the Department of Indian Affairs school records, the Black Series, Canada Sessional Papers, and Hudson’s Bay Company Records, Methodist Indian day schools in Berens River, Cross Lake, Oxford House and Nelson House will be explored as case studies.
These settlements are representative of northern Indian communities. All are situated in the boreal forest with its attendant ecologically adaptive culture. All experienced the decline of the fur trade through the nineteenth century and a continual, intrusive Euro-Canadian presence. Daily life and the seasonal round in the schools will be examined and the attitudes of students, parents, teachers, employees of the Department of Indian Affairs, Methodist missionaries and members of the Indian community as a whole will be discussed to the extent that documents allow.
To set the scene for this study, it is necessary to describe the physical appearance of the schools of Berens River, Cross Lake, Oxford House and Nelson House. In the case of Berens River, the Department of Indian Affairs records provide a rather hazy view. It seems to have been assumed that the condition of the school was either well known and taken for granted or not cared about. Most superiors within the Department seem to have had too much work to do to establish a clear picture of some tiny school in what they no doubt believed was the middle of nowhere. Berens River school records begin around 1910 and we have some sketchy reports by Indian Agents.  Early clues to the deplorable condition of the building can be found in repeated pleas for a new school house. The school was not accessible to many students on the reserve since it was not situated in the middle of the property but rather off to one side. However, a letter written in 1936 provides the best picture of the condition of the school building. Writing to the Minister of the Interior, Reverend J. W. Niddrie explained:
Dissatisfaction with the day school itself appears in the records as early as 1907. There seems to have been a great desire for the formation of a boarding school on the reserve. Inspectors and teachers were vocal about thisand so were the Indians themselves. Three years after a 1907 report by Inspector Reverend John Semmens  a letter was forwarded to Ottawa signed with an ‘X’ by Chief Jacob Berens and his two councillors, William Everitt and James McDonald. The day school at Berens River, according to the chief’s and councillors’ letter, was not fulfilling the Indians’ needs. The community wanted a boarding school:
The letter went on to assure unanimous support of the Indians for such a school and emphasized the fact that the community was willing to devote 160 acres of land to the site of a new school. Of interest is the stress the letter places on requesting that any new boarding school be run “under the auspices of the Methodist Church.” It is possible that the Methodists were influential in the actual typing of the letter (since the signatures were signed with an ‘X’). However, since the chief was a Methodist, it is not surprising that he should want a new school which would be affiliated with this denomination. 
Did the chief and councillors know what they were signing? Is it possible that the Berens River Indians were so convinced of the “superiority” of the white man’s education that they would plan to discontinue teaching their children the skills of hunting and fishing in the wildernessso vital for survival? It is probable, given the nature of Berens River at this time, that the Indians of this community realized that white men and their ways were to be a permanent fixture in their lives. A boarding school on the reserve might have been seen as a means of allowing children to attend school and allowing parents to get on with making a living in the bush whereas regular day school attendance would have required parents to be present in the community for the duration of the school year. At the same time, children would be in close proximity to parents. This point is significant as, in his report for 1895, Indian Agent A. MacKay mentioned that the Indians of Cross Lake and Berens River were “all being told that they should send their children to the Brandon Industrial school but they won’t.” The Brandon school was over 200 miles to the southwest and parents had no desire to be separated from their children by such a distance.  While white men may have conceived of boarding or industrial schools as the most effective means of assimilation, it seems clear that Indians viewed them as, at best, a convenient means of coping with Euro-Canadian demands  and had no taste for sending children great distances to attend them.
Poor school buildings were typical of all reserves studied with the exception of Oxford House, which had none. Indians there began appealing to the government for a school in 1910. By 1912, when Department of Indian Affairs records for this reserve end, there was still no school building at Oxford House.  Cross Lake School files from 1900, when records begin, to 1925, contain many references to the run down condition of that school. 
The Methodists began fresh agitation for a day school at Nelson House in 1899.  Departmental correspondence contains numerous exchanges between the Rev. Alexander Sutherland and J. D. McLean. In 1899 McLean explained that “there are 115 Roman Catholic children [in the Nelson House area] and the Anglicans already have six schools around the Hudson’s Bay district of Moosonee,” concluding that one more day school added to the area, Methodist or otherwise, would be a waste.  Sutherland replied that there were already 80 Methodist children who would attend a day school under the auspices of that church. In 1900 the Methodists went ahead and established a school without a grant. Classes were held in the church  until 1904 when Ottawa gave Gaudin a grant of 150 dollars to build a new schoolhouse with the dimensions of sixteen feet by twenty-four feet.  By 1912, however, this building was not satisfactory. The Indian Agent reported: “The school at this [reserve] is a very poor building. It is far too small for the number of children that could go to school.” 
As in the case of Berens River, the Nelson House community expressed a desire for a boarding school. On 26 August 1907, Chief Joseph Hartie  and two Nelson House band councillors, Murdock Hartie and Peter Moose, wrote to the Minister of the Interior. They had heard there were going to be treaty negotiations in the near future and that one clause would deal with education. At a council meeting it had been decided that they should ask for a boarding school to be built on their reserve.
This letter reveals the extent to which the traditional culture was imbedded in the Nelson House community’s lifestyle; it contrasts sharply with the situation at Oxford House where trapping areas had, by this time, shrunk to the degree that men often did not leave the post at all. 
The councillors’ appeal seems to have an explanation similar to the Berens River Indians’ appeal for a boarding school. The day school was cold, poorly equipped, difficult to reach in freezing winters when young children were forced to cross the lake and impossible to reach in summer. Parents were undoubtedly receiving pressure from Indian Agents and missionaries to ensure that their children attended school and it is probable that they desired their children to be literate. Proof of this can be found in a letter from Chief Patrick Constant of the Pas Indian Reserve dated 2 August 1924, and written on behalf of the Nelson House Indians who apparently still desired a boarding school:
It would appear that these Indians believed that with the prospect of survival from the hunt diminishing it would one day be necessary for their children to venture into the world of the white man. As mentioned earlier, a boarding school clearly presented a way for children to be educated on a consistent basis and for parents to maintain a flexible life that would allow them to be away in the bush for periods of time. If a day school would not teach children to deal with a changing world, perhaps a boarding school would. The Cree probably saw such a boarding school as a simple solution to the problem. They undoubtedly did not realize that the main intention behind these schools was to rid children of every shred of Indian culture they possessed. 
We have very few clues about exactly how important the issues of day schools and white education were to parents on the Berens River, Cross Lake, Oxford House and Nelson House reserves. The records contain almost no input from natives. It is also dangerous to rely to any great degree on Euro-Canadian reports of how the Indians really felt on any given issue. Often such reports were products of frustration and misunderstanding about Indian ways. Some reports regarding the Indians’ wishes may also have been contrived in hopes of swaying Ottawa’s opinion. An example of this appears in John W. Niddrie’s report to Ottawa of 31 December, 1910:
We cannot assume that Niddrie was completely innocent of “using” Indian opinion to influence Ottawa to support Methodist work financially.
The letters from the Nelson House and Berens River bands regarding boarding schools are some of the few extant examples of direct Indian involvement. As with any historical source, they cannot be taken at face value. On one hand, their authors may not have had complete understanding of what the presence of a boarding school would do to their community, especially in the case of the Nelson House community which had been so removed from such issues.
We do not know, either, to what extent the letters reflected committed conviction or missionary manipulation. On the other hand, perhaps the people in the community knew exactly what they wanted and acted accordingly. In the case of Oxford House, another example of Indian involvement exists in the form of the letter written to Ottawa in 1910 asking for the erection of a school. Cross Lake affords no examples of Indian involvement. This community’s attitude toward white educational attempts and the Methodist day school is only hinted at in the repeated references to the lack of interest that the Indians displayed toward such matters.  The picture painted is one of ambivalence at best.
The records afford only one other example of the expression of native opinion. This incident occurred in 1917 when Chief Jacob Berens of Berens River mentioned the desire to have a new teacher appointed following the resignation of the former teacher, Mr. Percy Jones. The chief requested that the new teacher be experienced and preferably older. The next teacher hiredextremely quicklywas an older widow.  Unfortunately, records do not reveal the name of this teacher nor the extent of her experience in the area. It may be a little more than coincidental that the Chief’s request for an “older” teacher was filled so quickly. It is possible that the Methodists intended to hire an older woman and encouraged this communication from the chief.  It must also be remembered that, in this case, the chief’s wishes were conveyed to the Department through the Inspector of Indian Agencies (Bunn). Jacob Berens did not write a letter himself or sign an “X” on any document.
Perhaps the fact that active Indian involvement in the schools was rare is indicative of the attitudes of these communities toward Euro-Canadian educational efforts. The record allows few concrete insights into the collective minds of the Indians, so it is necessary to read between the lines. Poorly built as they were, none of the schools studied ever “mysteriously” burned downhowever, every year several requests were made for panes of glass. Windows were clearly being broken, perhaps accidentally or by students of the schools, and perhaps, in the cases of Berens River, Cross Lake, and Nelson House, by students from rival Roman Catholic schools which were in fierce competition with Methodist schools.
One of the best clues we have regarding just how the schools fitted into the Indian world on the reserves is attendance. Over the years, teachers were rewarded with higher salaries if they could keep up attendance figures.  Inspectors’ reports for schools contain numerous references to poor attendance in the day schools. The Methodists tried many schemes to get more children to schooleverything from serving a midday meal to, in the case of Berens River, begging the government for horses and a sleigh to transport children.  Ottawa’s position was clear: no extra money was to be spent to induce attendance. In 1931, an excellent expression of the Departmental attitude was communicated to the Methodists with the comment that, “If the Department is going to furnish money for a school, the least the parents can do is take responsibility to see that their children attend.” 
Berens River teachers and inspectors lamented the poor attendance between 1890 and 1925. “Very irregular attendance,”  reported Indian Agent A. MacKay in 1894. A frustrated Rev. Thomas Neville reported in the Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church in 1905 that, “Schools on the Reserve ... seem to be a failure. Children do not attend ...”  It is interesting that Indian Agents attributed any increases in attendance at Berens River to the teacher. E. McColl, the Inspector of Indian Agencies, wrote of the Berens River teacher (unnamed) in 1901 that, “The large attendance she has is an evidence of their [the Indians] appreciation of her.” 
Records referred frequently to poor attendance at the Cross Lake day school. Once again attendance appeared to be linked to teaching quality. In 1890, the Indian Agent from Cross Lake reported that the school there was doing badly, “owing in great measure to the small and irregular attendance of the pupils, partly in consequence of the indifferent and perfunctory manner of the teacher.”  “Very irregular attendance” was reported by Cross Lake in 1892.  It is interesting to note that after another bad attendance report for the Cross Lake school submitted by the Indian Agent in 1909,  the report for 1911 was markedly improved with the cause now being attributed to a good teacher. C. C. Calverley wrote that, “The day school is well attended. The parents are interested in the school and they have a very good teacher. The result is very satisfactory.” 
Nelson House seems to have shared the Berens River and Cross Lake day schools’ poor attendance records. The records are filled with complaints. For example, in 1913 the teacher, Rev. Henry T. Wright, wrote: “There are 45 pupils on the roll ... The children live far from the school, attendance is very irregular and anything but punctual.” 
Oxford House records are the most brief and unrevealing of those of the four day schools studied. Very little attention seems to have been paid to this community, members of which were largely left on their own to sink or swim in their desperate struggle against poverty. Significantly, attendance problems do not seem to have occurred because parents were away on hunting and fishing trips.  Rather, the high rate of absenteeism seems to have existed “[because of] the great distance which they [the children] live from the Methodist mission.”  By 1911, however, the school at Oxford House seems to have gained a greater foothold in the community. The Indian Agent’s report made mention of the good attendance and marked progress being made at the day school. 
Attendance problems were not unique to the schools studied here. In 1918, the report of the General Board of Missions cited “inability to enforce regulations respecting attendance” as being one of the drawbacks in day school success.  As noted, poor school attendance was often blamed on teachers. Deputy Superintendent General Duncan C. Scott wrote to Reverend G. Baker, Secretary for the General Board of Missions of the Methodist Church in 1919:
There were several other explanations for low attendance which must be considered, however. Because, as one report stated, their “wild untutored home life” was usually preferable to the restricted routine of a day school, Indian children attended only irregularly.  J. A. Macdonald’s 1883 report in the Sessional Papers explained that not only were Indians too concerned with hunting to achieve regular attendance at school, but there was also an “inherent conviction” among the Indians that where a child’s education differed from that of the parents the family would be separated in the hereafter.  In an earlier report, Macdonald attributed poor attendance to bad roads and long distances between home and school.  Finally, Duncan C. Scott, Superintendent of Indian education wrote in 1910 that
Another explanation for poor attendance has centred on the health of Indian children. H. J. Vallery equated poor attendance with poor health. Prior to 1910, most teachers were not trained to teach health and Indians lived in “unsanitary environments.”  Sessional Papers reports say such things as, “children are surrounded by dogs who sleep with them at night, live in poorly ventilated huts which are overheated and unduly crowded.”  Vallery maintained that poor hygiene among students and a lack of rigorous health requirements created irregular attendance in Indian day schools and retarded “progress.” 
Between 1908 and 1930, regulations were enacted to make school attendance compulsory. In 1910, hygiene textbooks were issued in Ontario and Manitoba, and greater stress was placed on physical health. This was part of a growing awareness of physical fitness and hygiene that was sweeping the country at this time.  Attendance, however, did not markedly increase.
Perhaps one of the most comprehensive explanations of poor attendance at Berens River school and the reasons behind it can be found in a letter to the Department from the teacher, Mrs. Lowes, in 1910.
A fairly clear picture of what the school probably represented to many Indians in Berens River can be gleaned from these sentences. Situated far away from homes, difficult to travel to, and in terrible shape, the school and its motives were foreign to the lives of the Indians. This was undoubtedly the case at Cross Lake and Nelson House and, to a large extent, at Oxford House. While parents probably wished their children to acquire those skills that would enable them to cope with the Euro-Canadian world, they had no intention of allowing the assimilation of their children into that world. The adults in these communities seem to have placed little stock in staying home in order to send their children to schools that would teach skills different from those inherent in their own background and culture. The day schools posed a practical problem as well. Children could not stay home alone to study while parents left for several weeks of hunting and fishing. Even the communities of Berens River and Cross Lakewho faced some gruelling winters, meagre hunts and poor prices for their furs, and who were at least keeping peace by going through the motions of agriculture and cattle raisingmade a choice between the school and their traditional livelihood. The school did not come out the winner. Despite differences in the characters and situations of the four reserves, it is probable that the parents in all these communities thought alike on these issues.
Poor attendance, broken windows and meagre Indian involvement are evidence that the day schools did not fit well into Indian communities. Further evidence of conflicts and misunderstandings comes from the Berens River school records. Mr. Colin Street, the teacher at Berens River, prepared two students to write the high school entrance exam in the summer of 1926. The Methodists were extremely proud of this accomplishment; it was the first time Berens River students had progressed to such a level. One unnamed female student passed. The other student who was to have written the exam was the son of Chief William Berens.  However, he missed the opportunity. Reverend Niddrie wrote an explanation to Ottawa:
The bitterness stirred by this situation was sufficient to warrant further correspondence with Ottawa for two years. In June of 1927, Rev. Ferrier wrote a memo about Chief Berens.
In August, 1928, Niddrie wrote to Ferrier that three students had written the high school entrance exam and passed.
Many interesting things can be learned from the above correspondence. Some “progress” was obviously being made in the school in order for Mr. Street to be able to bring three students to such a standard. Although the chief’s son was somewhat old (in Euro-Canadian terms) to be writing the exam, it is significant that he had achieved such a level and was still attending school at such an age. Also of interest is the difference between the original explanation forwarded to Ottawa and the actual reason for preventing the boy from writing the exam. The former places all the “blame” on the studenthe sounds too careless and ambivalent to bother getting out of bed to write the exam. In reality, the Methodists disapproved of the student’s personal conduct and forbade him to write. Clearly “ambivalence” cannot describe the feelings of the family who were agitated for at least two years.
The real reason for this fracas, of course, centres on the ever-present morality issue. The missionaries slapped a judgement on the boy that seemed unfair to the family concerned. The Berens family clearly resented this encroachment of the teacher’s authority into their lives. The intrusion touched a raw nerve and shattered fragile communication. The duration of the bad feeling gives one an indication of its intensity. Bitterness seems to have run on both sides. Niddrie’s comment that the chief had been exerting negative influence “of course in the dark” shows mistrust and angeran emotional venting on the part of Niddrieperhaps a slip which revealed more than it was intended to.
Whatever happened, the schools ploughed onsmall domains under the direction of the teachers. Day school teachers were front line workers. It was teachers who were charged with the practical responsibility of enforcing plans, inculcating attitudes, and communicating knowledge and values to students. It was teachers who dealt with people and problems in the schools and community and who were mediators between Euro-Canadian values and ideals that flowed from the Methodists and the Department into Creel Ojibwa culture. Serving three masters (Methodists, Ottawa and, to some extent, Indian parents) teachers were charged with massive responsibility and blamed for everything that went wrong in the school. This pressure was added to the effects produced by isolation, hard work  and immersion in a culture vastly different from their own.
Since the school was considered to be the most effective means of “civilizing” Indian bands, the teacher was responsible for influencing life both inside and outside the school. In 1887, the following appeared in a booklet of regulations concerning Indian day schools:
Since teachers were in the unique position of being in close proximity to Indian families, they could not wave a wandas Ottawa policy-makers and Methodist Missionary Society administrators hopedand apply contemporary philosophies to change the Indians. It was one thing to aim to “Maintain in Indian schools the same standards that exist in the public schools in the Province”  and another thing to do it. After 1922, teachers in Indian schools were also expected “to carry out the instructions of the [provincial] inspectors regarding their work and general school management.” 
In his “Memories of a Happy Journey Through Life,” Methodist missionary Roscoe Chapin included a revealing statement about the life of a day school teacher. Discussing Charles Clay, the “young and energetic teacher” working at the Island Lake day school in 1925, Chapin wrote:
Teachers had two choices: they could work hard and learn to live with the struggles of different constituencies pulling them in all directions or they could quit. Many chose the latter course of action; the high rate of turnover is striking.  It was extremely difficult to attract and retain well-qualified teachers. In 1890, the Methodist General Conference Journal lamented the fact that
The last point here divulges another clue about the day schools’ place in their Indian communities. Clearly, parents did not consider the schools sufficiently relevant to force their children to attend; nor was forceful discipline a part of their way of life. The Methodists also often misunderstood the fact that Cree/Ojibwa culture embodies concepts of discipline that are different from Euro-Canadian ideas. In hunting and fishing activities and work that is important to the community, there is no need for “discipline.” Children in these societies tend to want to do well in tasks considered to have communal importance and consequently there is seldom need of any restraint stronger than mild teasing.  The fact that children were not flocking to day schools of their own accord is suggestive of the tenuous position this institution occupied in Indian communities.
Most teachers left the reserves within a year.  A few missionaries taught day school for a number of years,  but only one teacher, Colin Street, remained in his position for a substantial period. Street taught at the Berens River day school for eight of the years between 1920 and 1935. This unfortunate gentleman ended his career with a nervous breakdown. While he had been through the Boer War and the First World War, one cannot help but wonder if his career in the school was itself a contributing factor to his condition. 
Some teachers were well qualified. In 1894 the (unnamed) teacher at Berens River won a prize given by the Inspector for efficiency. In 1896, Miss Alexander, a graduate of Mount Allison College in New Brunswick, took over a vacancy in the school. She was replaced a year later by Miss Mary E. Hayne, 23 years old and the holder of a second class certificate with honours. The teacher arriving in 1910 was equally well qualified and “extremely interested in Indians.”  The teacher hired by the Methodists to work at Nelson House in 1920 had taught for nine years in Indian Departmental schools “on the coast.” 
Other teachers possessed weaker qualifications but were taken on anyway. Many possessed training that was “about equal” to a certificate. In one instance (1916) an applicant for a position at Berens River was declined at the last minute as he was in the advanced stages of consumption. There does not seem to have been any concern about the threat such an illness would pose to the students.  The only reason given for the failure of his application was that he was “too weak to handle the school.” 
It seems clear that when the Methodists had the good fortune to have qualified teachers they swept them up, praised them and gloried in their “great discovery.” If a qualified teacher did not appear, unqualified ones were accepted so long as they were morally upstanding. Many examples of this can be found in the school records. For instance in 1902, Alexander Sutherland wrote to Ottawa that the Methodists
According to Sutherland, in order that the school not become vacant, the Methodists were sending in a supply teacher with no certificate and no teaching experience but possessing “good judgement and excellent character.”  Sutherland was confident that she would do well in handling the primary teaching “at a place like Oxford House.” The Methodists put the best face possible on their selections in their correspondence with the Department.
Teachers were expected to teach children who often seemed ambivalent, unresponsive and foreign. Some accepted the situation and learned to live with it: examples were Colin Street, and Mrs. Lowes who wrote to the Department about her students with a tolerance and an absence of bitterness that could only have been the product of some understanding borne of time. Others went perhaps for the adventure or to secure some experience, thus making them more employable back home, or perhaps for the challenge of “civilizing” and “helping” the “poor Indians.” Many of the latter group of teachers must have been sadly disillusioned, especially the ones who did not last through the year.
Unfortunately no teachers’ diaries were available for this study. The records, however, tell something of the extra-curricular work that they encountered. Teachers needed a certain amount of compassion and common sense to extend beyond the line of duty. Mrs. Lowes, for example, clothed children herself in order to have them properly attired to better cope with trips to and from school in cold northern winters. Midday meals had to be cooked and served by the teacher, who usually had to cajole Ottawa into giving money for peas or beans, biscuits and cocoa for the children. For instance in 1920, the Nelson House teacher wrote to the Department, “The children come across the river for some distance to this school and if they were given lunch it would help attendance greatly.”  One has to wonder about the generations of children at this and other day schools who fought through freezing winters only to sit all day in a cold room  with nothing but a dry biscuit at noon.
Sometimes the midday meal was another means of imparting Euro-Canadian culture to students. The following letter, dated 1919, is typical. Miss Sara Richardson of the Cross Lake school wrote:
Richardson explained that she wished to teach cooking to give the children a hot midday meal. Two other points raised in her letter are significant. Indians at Cross Lake were obviously in need of aid at this time and the fact that they were having difficulty cooking food given to them by the missionary was probably because he was providing them with materials that were foreign to their regular diets. Since this probably represented another aspect of encroaching Euro-Canadian culture, it is not surprising that parents desired their children to be skilled in this area. Secondly, it is interesting that as late as 1919 the teacher was in need of “incentives” to get children to use English during school hours; this is a sign of a cultural struggle with the children resisting the use of English.
Other additional duties of teachers appeared in the form of extra-curricular activities for students. Gardens were maintained at many day schools.  These yielded potatoes, turnips, onions and carrots under the tender attention of teacher and students. At Berens River, song books and yarn were ordered. The teacher at Cross Lake was teaching the “Hag and Wand Drills” and Christmas carols in 1912. Teachers were free to use their imaginations in an attempt to bring any number of new activities to the students, so long as these were “character building,” aided the assimilative process, and (probably most important) cost the Department no extra money. 
The bleak Departmental responses to teachers who wrote to them with plans for student activities afford a real sense of the hopeless case of the day schools of northern Manitoba. The dilapidated little buildings, at least on those reserves which had school buildings, were maintained at the bare minimum. Expectations and challenges decreased over time.  While the existence of the students was acknowledged by Ottawa, for them the mysterious, careless, semi-civilized people of Berens River, Cross Lake, Oxford House and Nelson House were too remote to stir great concern. We will never know how many teachers caught this ambivalent feeling or how many transmitted it. We do know, however, that some, like Street, remained to grow gardens and to teach typing, knitting and physical culture.
Physical culture was certainly a part of the lives of day school students. At Cross Lake in 1912, the teacher reported that she conducted “calisthenics twice a day.”  Berens River submitted requests for baseballs, bats, footballs and basketballs. Inspectors made a point of reporting on the quality of calisthenics carried out at Manitoba Indian day schools.
It seems that extra-curricular activities were carried out too often to be dismissed as exercises to fill time. Besides obvious assimilative motives for Indian (and immigrant) students in Manitoba, another probable motive involved fears of “the Devil making work for idle hands.” Extra-curricular work broadened the mind, used extra time constructively and, especially in the case of organized sports, produced discipline, practice in acceptable social behaviour and ultimately, obedience. This emphasis was prevalent in schools throughout Canada between 1910 and 1925. The concept was extremely popular and educators had great faith in the long-term benefits of such activities.
The emphasis in day schools was on providing students with a suitable English education. If the government was to build Canadian citizens (or, at least, citizens coming as close to the Euro-Canadian ideal as such “savages” could come) one of the best ways to begin was with a good solid English Canadian education in the schools. From 1867 to 1900, therefore, reading, spelling, arithmetic, grammar, history, geography, music, singing and drawing were taught in Indian day schools. Some emphasis was placed on fine arts. This was important as it was believed that a truly educated person was in possession of a broad range of accomplishments. In some day schools, advanced students were taught catechism, dictation, mental arithmetic, composition, and Scripture, and were given object lessons.  The education of the spirit was an important part of Canadianizing any Indian, just as it was for training any Euro-Canadian or immigrant student.
After 1900, more stress was placed on hygiene lessons. All of the four schools studied here submitted requisitions for combs, mirrors, soap and toothbrushes. Boys were instructed in agricultural subjects after this date, and were urged to cultivate garden plots. Some day schools taught domestic science to girls and education seemed to evolve into somewhat more practical areas rather than stressing only theoretical subjects. 
It is unfortunate that records for the schools at Berens River, Cross Lake, Oxford House and Nelson House make no mention of the subjects that were taught. In the case of Berens River one piece of correspondence sheds light on students’ activities. A Department letter to the Methodists in 1910 commented on the materials ordered for the school by the teacher, Mrs. Lowes.
From this it is obvious that some domestic science work was being undertaken at Berens River and was probably new, since the Department did not take the ordering of yarn for granted and speculated about what it would be used for. The other schools under study seemed to have too many problems in securing teachers and staying open at all to bother submitting reports of programmes and classes. To do this, schools needed to have some stability in the community and some consistency of operation.
Between 1915 and 1917, the Manitoba provincial curriculum was gradually introduced to the day schools. Vallery believed the change was made to “oblige the Inspectors of the various provinces in the supervision of Indian schools and also to obtain the required textbooks more easily.”  Under provincial curricula, Indian day schools provided the necessary preparatory training to qualify pupils for Canadian high school attendance. Such a step furthered the chances for Indian assimilation into Canadian society and theoretically provided something of an open door. Prior to this development, Indian children were educated to a limited end. There was little opportunity for them to continue with a high school and post secondary education due to the type of training they had received. Over time, however, each generation of students tended to spend less time in the bush and more time in the classroom, especially with the increasing pressures related to the legality of regular school attendance.
During the 1920s, more emphasis was placed on language and reading (both were necessary for assimilation), domestic science, general housework, manual training, agriculture and physical training. There was a firm conviction that education should have a useful, practical end if students were to make significant contributions to society, or at least maintain self-sufficiency.
The graphs and tables that accompany this article were generated from statistics in the Sessional Papers. They demonstrate some enrolment, attendance and achievement figures for the students in Berens River, Cross Lake, Oxford House and Nelson House schools. This data includes the total number of male students enrolled in the school, the total number of female students enrolled and the average total attendance over the year. Unfortunately, almost all the sources of data that mention individuals pertain to males. Even with female teachers present, native mothers and daughters sink into anonymity in the records.
All statistics begin with the year 1895 as no information is available for 1890. Data was also unavailable for the years 1915 and 1920. In the case of the graphs, the 1920 statistics were derived from the averages of the data from the years 1919 and 1921. In the case of the tables, statistics from 1919 have been substituted. Unfortunately, there is no way of discerning whether female or male students attended more regularly.
In the case of Berens River, the graph demonstrates that both attendance and levels of achievement were raised between 1920 and 1925. Fewer students were crowded into the beginning books and more were spread through the more advanced levels. The worst year for achievement as well as attendance was 1915 when attendance dwindled practically to nothing. Average attendance levels were low from 1895 to 1915. This was a time when teachers were leaving as soon as their year’s work was completed (if not before). Subject matter at that time was mostly of an academic nature with great emphasis on religion, and it is possible that students and parents believed there was little to gain from school life.
The years prior to 1920 were filled with changes and upheavals in Berens River community and school life. Hard winters and a struggle for food probably took up most of this community’s attention. Illness also plagued these people. Perhaps a high death rate is partly responsible for the drop in the number of male students enrolled in the school between 1900-1905. Male students may also have quit school during those years to help their families survive. It is probable, however, that such poor average attendance in this period reflects the low impact this institution had on the reserve.
One of the reasons for increased attendance at Berens River between 1920 and 1925 may be that the school was becoming more useful and practical for students. Goals such as the high school entrance exam were set and a broader, probably more interesting array of subjects existed. It is also possible that the school was becoming a fixture in the Berens River community. In 1925, some children attending the Berens River Methodist school would probably have been second or third generation students. By 1920, this school was also better organized than most day schools with more efficient teachers. Reports sent to Ottawa by these instructors were increasingly frequent and comprehensive.
Cross Lake school’s attendance and achievement levels also correlate. Between 1895 and 1900, standards and attendance rose dramatically only to plunge between 1900 and 1915. After another dramatic rise in 1915, both attendance and achievement levels dwindled until 1925. Generally low levels probably resulted from little emphasis being placed on the day schools by both Indians and Euro-Canadians. The records do not mention who was in charge of the school during the time of the first major rise in 1900, but the Indian Agent reported that when this teacher left the reserve at the end of the year the Indians were asking that another be sent.  This is the only time such a request from the Cross Lake community appears in the records. It is probable that as far as they were concerned the teacher at the day school was deserving of high attendance.
Between 1900 and 1910 there was a great deal of illness among the Indians at Cross Lake. This could partly account for the drop in attendance. Undoubtedly, part of the decrease was due to the fact that no teacher was available until 1904.  Unfortunately, the records contain no evidence about the uncharacteristic, short-lived rise in attendance and achievement in 1915. However, it seems that gross administrative mismanagement over a twenty-five-year period accounts for the diminishing attendance and performance that occurred after 1915.
There are almost no records for Oxford House and Nelson House; hence it is nearly impossible to draw conclusions about these schools. At Nelson House only one report was submitted by S. D. Gaudin between 1890-1915. Not only is this report unique in this aspect; it also contains the highest average attendance column of any of the schools that were studied. Academic standards, once again, correlate with attendance. This performance may have been due to the fact that Gaudin had been working diligently with the Nelson House community since 1892 and the Indians had come to like and trust him. However, it is curious that such a high attendance figure could appear in records dealing with a group that was so much oriented toward hunting. It is possible that Gaudin calculated attendance based on the number of days when most of the Native people were located around the mission. Perhaps because they were not under treaty, Nelson House Indians were not pressured by anyone but Gaudin to attend school and consequently attended school more frequently. Certainly this community was financially secure enough at this time to be able to send its children to school.
Between 1915 and 1925, when we have the greatest amount of data concerning Oxford House and Nelson House, it seems the Nelson House school endured the same neglect that the Oxford House school experienced. The scarcity of all records pertaining to these reserves supports this conclusion. The government and Methodists did not strenuously involve themselves with the Indians and they in turn seemed unconcerned with the school.
Whatever unique situations or neglect occurred in each case, all four of the schools continued to struggle. Changes occurred from 1890 to 1925 in fits and starts, all with the goal of assimilating the Indians of these reserves. At Berens River after 1915, the Department and school gained some good teachers; the community was also becoming increasingly settled and some hope must have arisen that these Indians really could come close to becoming “civilized” if they were steered on the right course.
Over the years the presence of the teacher would grow less foreign. Gaudin wrote of his pupils at the beginning of his work with them at Norway House in 1890:
In later years, in contrast, these children fought to hold the teacher’s hand.
As new and “higher” levels of academic achievement presented themselves after 1915, older students were faced with added expectations. The high school entrance exam was open to themthey were to be trained to write it and then, it was hoped, move on to higher plateaus of “progress” towards assimilation into the “superior” Euro-Canadian society.
Underneath it all, however, Indian day schools represented a foreign culture and foreign values. Students were forced to sink or swim within them; but whatever happened or did not happen, they were expected to attend. We can know little about what went on in the minds and hearts of the students who went through the motions of lessons, baseball, catechism and hoeing the garden. How much was memorized by blind repetition and how much was interpreted by students to become a part of their own world is a study that would have to be carried out on each child that stepped from his or her parents’ homefilled with Creel Ojibwa culture, values and legendary traditionsinto the schoolroom to learn an imparted message of Indian inferiority.
Source: For all preceding tables and graphs: Canada Sessional Papers, 1896, vol. XXIX, no. 14; 1901, vol. XXXV, no. 11; 1906, vol. XL, no. 1; 1916, vol. LI, no. 23; 1920, vol. LVI, no. 8; 1926-27, vol. II.
The above tables classify pupils according to their reading level. The "standard" indicates the level of the textbook used, therefore, shows the degree of general standard advancement. Standard I involveds the first reader: part 1. Standard II involves the first reader: part 2. Standard III involves the second reader; Standard IV, the third reader; Standard V, the fourth reader; Standard VI, the fifth reader; and so on.
1. Ken Coates, “A Very Imperfect Means of Education: Indian Day Schools in the Yukon Territory, 1890-1955,” in Indian Education in Canada. Volume 1: The Legacy, eds. Jean Barman, Yvonne Hebert, and Don McCaskill (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986). Unpublished day school studies include: Susan Elaine Dueck, “Methodist Indian Day Schools in Northern Manitoba, 1890-1925” (MA Thesis, The University of Manitoba, 1986), H. J. Vallery, “A History of Indian Education in Canada” (MA Thesis, Queens University, 1942).
2. For example, the report written in 1912 by Inspector Bunn is brief and unrevealingBerens River school is “satisfactory.” Another typical report was submitted in 1915 by Inspector Carterwork in the school was “good.” See Archives of Manitoba (hereafter AM), RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2.
4. He strongly advised “discontinuance of schools of day school class and substitution of boarding schools.” AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2.
9. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6242, file 530-5, part 1; and file 530-1, part 1.
10. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6230, file 508-1, part 1.
11. Methodist interest in schooling at Nelson House goes back to the 1860s and ‘70s, when the local convert, Sandy Hartie (taught by Egerton Ryerson Young), began teaching his people there in the 1870s. Correspondence with Ottawa ebbed during the last decade of the century, until 1899, when it increased again.
12. Moosonee is entirely irrelevant to the Nelson House area being hundreds of miles to the southeast. McLean must have observed the locations in question on a map and misjudged the vast distance between them. It is another example of the Ottawa bureaucratic workers’ lack of understanding of the territory (not to mention people) of the north.
13. This building, which was not equipped for schooling, possessing no desks nor blackboard, was cold and uncomfortable. It took two stoves to heat it and the missionary, S. D. Gaudin, often found it difficult to get much help with hauling wood fuel.
14. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6241, file 527-5, part 1.
17. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6240, file 527-1, part 1.
18. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6242, file 530-3, part 1.
19. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6240, file 527-1, part 1.
20. For an excellent discussion of Indian boarding schools see Jacqueline Gresko, “White ‘Rites’ and Indian ‘Rites’: Indian Education and Native Response in the West, 1870-1910,” in Western Canada Past and Present, ed. A. W. Rasporich (Calgary: McClelland and Stewart West, 1975).
21. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6242, File 530-1, part 1.
22. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6230, file 508-1, part 1.
23. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2.
25. It must be remembered, however, that poor attendance was a problem throughout Manitoba schools from 1890 until the establishment of compulsory education. Poor attendance was not confined to Indian schools. See Keith Wilson, “The Development of Education in Manitoba” (PhD dissertation, The University of Manitoba, 1967) p. 426.
26. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2.
35. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6240, file 527-1, part 1.
37. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6242, file 530-1, part 1.
40. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6032, file 150-40A, part 1.
42. “Report of J. A. Macdonald, 1883,” Sessional Papers, 1884, vol.17, no. 4. This shows a typical uninformed general response. Aside from some curious assumptions about Cree/Ojibwa world views, the analysis includes all native communities within one interpretation. What of the communities that had demonstrated a wish for schools to be established in their midst?
49. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2. Mrs Lowes was married to Methodist missionary Joseph Henry Lowes. They served at Berens River from 1910 to 1916.
50. William Berens, Chief from 1916 to 1948, became anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell’s main informant during the 1930s, impressing the latter as a sensitive, intelligent man. This incident could have been a contributing factor to Berens’ enthusiasm in the preservation of Saulteaux traditions. Chief Berens seemed to have found an outlet in Hallowell who ventured along at precisely the right time.
51. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2
55. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6001, file 1-1-1, part 1.
56. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6014, file 1-1-6 Man, part 1.
59. Cross Lake provides a typical example. In 1904 Inspector E. McColl wrote angrily about the rundown state of the school there and “the intermittent manner in which this school is conducted.” He warned that the Department would not fund any more repairs until a permanent teacher could be hired. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6230, file 508-1, part 1.
62. For Berens River see: AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-3, part 1. For Cross Lake see: AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6230, file 508-1, part 1. For Nelson House: AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6240, file 527-3, part 1. School records for Oxford House contain no lists of teachers on the reserve.
64. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2.
65. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-3, part 2.
66. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2. We do not know which coast was being referred to.
68. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-3, part 1.
69. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6242, file 530-1, part 1.
71. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6240, file 527-1, part 1.
72. For example, the Nelson House church in which school was conducted was difficult to heat. At Cross Lake in 1912, teacher Annie Cunningham reported to the Department, “When cold it is quite impossible to have the school comfortable.” See AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6230, file 508-1, part 1.
75. For example, in 1935 when Colin Street asked Ottawa if he could put two old typewriters he had found to use by giving his students typing lessons, they gave him the go-ahead accompanied by a clear warning that the venture had better not lead to requests for any more money from the Department. See AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-1, part 2.
76. By 1900, Methodists and government alike seemed to be wearying of their plans and ambitions for Indian assimilation. The Methodists seemed only to care that teachers were “moralistic” church members and the Department only worried that returns be completed accurately by the teachers and that expenditures be kept to a minimum.
77. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6230, file 508-1, part 1.
80. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6227, file 500-5, part 2.
83. AM, RG 10, DIA, vol. 6230, file 508-1, part 1.
Page revised: 22 December 2015