Manitoba History: In Pictures and Words: Life at the Brandon Residential School, 1902
by Anne Lindsay
In the 1880s, as the Government of Canada was setting out to create a system of residential and industrial schools across western Canada, people around Brandon became interested in having a school located in their area. Although the federal government had set aside land near Carman, Manitoba, for an industrial school, Brandon’s City Council actively undertook a campaign to have the planned school and its infrastructure built closer to their City. Approaching the Methodist Church, who were tasked with opening the school in collaboration with the federal government, Brandon City Council offered to provide a site next to the Brandon Experimental Farm in exchange for the land near Carman. The offer was accepted, and the deal was sealed in 1891; building on the site began in 1892, and the school opened its doors in 1895.  Ten years after building had first begun, in 1902, the Manitoba Free Press featured the school in an article promoting the City of Brandon. A close look at this article, alongside written records and photographs from the school, offers a unique view of life at the school as it was experienced in the early 20th century by its approximately 100 young wards.
The Brandon Industrial Institute began operations in 1895 in the Rural Municipality of Cornwallis, about five kilometres from the City of Brandon.  From its beginning, the school focussed its recruiting efforts on Cree and Anishinawbe children from northern Manitoba communities including Norway House, Gods Lake, Berens River, Nelson House, Oxford House, Island Lake, and Little Grand Rapids; other students came from Cross Lake, Fisher River, and St. Peter’s. Within a few years, the Reverend John Semmens, the school’s first principal, had also turned to recruiting children from the Dakota community of Griswold.  In his reminiscences, Semmens would recount that for the children the trip to the school involved “Many stormy Lakes,” and portages that “were numerous and swampy. The weather was adverse and the mosquitoes intolerable.” On the way, girls slept under cover, while boys slept in the open.  In 1903, the danger of this trip would be brought home forcefully when six children, a missionary, and a local man drowned while travelling to the school in an open boat on Lake Winnipeg. 
In 1899, the Reverend Thompson Ferrier replaced John Semmens as principal at Brandon.  By this time the school housed an average of 87 students, their numbers divided roughly evenly between boys and girls.  Although all of the children were medically examined before entering school, and Semmens recounted that the prospective pupils he had brought to the school in 1896 were in good health, save one who had been returned home, in 1899, Ferrier reported that four pupils had died.  In fact, between 1898 and 1906, over twenty-five children would pass away while living at the school. 
By 1902, the school had been operating for seven years, four under Semmens, and three under the supervision of Ferrier. In his annual report written in March 1903 covering the previous year, Ferrier noted that the school had one hundred and forty-six acres of land under cultivation, which was divided into grain, roots, gardens and fruit, summer fallow, meadow, and land being broken. The remaining 172 acres was pasture. The school focussed on training boys in farming, gardening, and stock-raising, which was, “more natural and will be more successful than forcing him into the overcrowded trades and professions of to-day” while being, according to Ferrier, a more realistic way of realizing the “transition of the Indian from fishing and hunting.” Girls, he wrote, were taught “cooking, laundry, sewing, and general housework,” as well as nursing.  For both boys and girls, this education that focussed on manual skills depended on having students spend a half-day in the classroom and a half-day performing unpaid labour that in turn supported the operation of the school. As the Superintendent of the Manitoba Inspectorate reported that same year, “Particular attention is given to the farm work, while inside the building the girls are taught everything to make them efficient housekeepers.” 
In July 1902, in a full-page spread, “Brandon, the Wheat City,” the Manitoba Free Press included a detailed description of the Brandon Industrial School. “Educating the Young Indian: Brandon Industrial School and Its Work of Uprising the Aboriginie” described the school and grounds in glowing terms, including its eight-acre garden, and its livestock: “six horses, thirty-two head of cattle, nineteen pigs and one hundred hens,” all under the care of the boys. Of the school’s two hundred and twenty acres, one hundred and thirty were under cultivation by the fewer than 50 male students at the school, who had harvested 3,500 bushels of grain, 4,500 of roots, and a hundred tons of fodder during the year. To learn carpentry, some of the boys had also built the school’s outbuildings, the “carpenter’s shop, ice house, and barn,” under the supervision of a teacher. On top of their carpentry skills, the boys were responsible for much of the electrical and plumbing infrastructure of the facilities. 
For their part, the girls at the school, the paper reported, were tasked with “sewing, laundry, cooking, general housework, dairy and fancy work.” At the school, fewer than fifty girls were responsible for sewing, maintaining, and mending all of the school’s bedding and linens, and with the exception of the boys’ suits, all of the students’ clothing, as well as cooking for the school, baking bread, and producing 2000 pounds of butter. In addition to their work at the school, older students could find themselves living out and working for local farmers and families during at least part of the year.  “The health of the pupils and staff is all that can be desired,” reported the paper. 
But despite such assurances, in the 1902–1903 school year six pupils died at the school. Drawn from distant communities including Gods Lake, Norway House, and Berens River, the youngest of these children was only seven, the oldest 16; most were in their early teens when they passed away. As Paul Hackett has shown, this pattern of declining health following admission to residential schools would continue throughout the residential school system’s history.  “It was sad beyond measure when we had to bury a pupil so far away from home and friends,” wrote Semmens in his memoires. “Distress keen and trying was felt when in hours of extreme illness the dear children longed for their dusky mothers and their humble wigwam homes.”  From the time of the school’s opening until about 1912, any child who died at the school was buried “at the lower end of the farm close to the Assinaboine (sic) River,” which would later become part of Brandon’s Curran Park, today known as Turtle Crossing. 
Couched in terms of illness such as scarlet fever and “consumption,” the ill health and deaths of the pupils was underpinned by the astonishing amount of unpaid physical labour the school expected of them as part of their education, labour that not only provided a theatre where students might learn manual skills, but which underwrote the costs of school’s operations. Far from home and parents, the children at the school put in long hours planting and harvesting, milking and churning, cooking, sewing, and ironing, the weight of this work showing in their health. In 1915, Ferrier responded to criticism that the boys at the school were poorly dressed by explaining that “In the month of April there is a great deal of work to be done that the boys cannot be very tidy in their clothing in doing.”  Photographs and descriptions of children in the early 1900s reflect the fact that life for the students at the Brandon Industrial Institute in 1902 was one defined by hard work and heavy labour from an early age.
1. Library and Archives of Canada, RG10 volume 6258 file 576-9, part 2, “Memo re The Land Used by the Brandon Indian Residential School,” n.d.
2. The United Church of Canada, “Brandon Industrial Institute,” http://thechildrenremembered.ca/school-locations/brandon
3. Semmens, John, Archives of the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, 1915 (circa) ‘Notes on Personal History’, by Rev. John Semmens (Rev. John Semmens Personal Papers, c278 d1) pp. 94–95, 99.
4. Semmens, “Notes on Personal History,” p. 97.
5. United Church Archives, “Brandon Industrial Institute,” “The Children Remembered,” http://thechildrenremembered.ca/school-locations/brandon/#_ftn38
6. Archives of the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, “Brandon Industrial School/Residential School” http://uccarchiveswinnipeg.ca/brandon-industrial-institute/
7. Thompson Ferrier, Report, “Brandon Industrial School,” Dominion of Canada Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the Year Ended June 30 1899, p. 304. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/first-nations/indian-affairs-annual-reports/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=12815
8. Dominion of Canada Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the Year Ended June 30 1899, 306. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/first-nations/indian-affairs-annual-reports/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=12817 Semmens, “Notes on Personal History,” p. 95.
9. Archives of the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, “Brandon Industrial School/Residential School” http://thechildrenremembered.ca/school-locations/brandon/#_ftn38
10. Dominion of Canada Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the Year Ended June 30 1903, p. 342. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/first-nations/indian-affairs-annual-reports/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=16439
11. Dominion of Canada Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the Year Ended June 30 1903, p. 450. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/first-nations/indian-affairs-annual-reports/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=16547
12. Winnipeg Free Press, 26 July 1903, p. 17.
13. For example, see Library and Archives of Canada, RG10 GRB/BAN W84-85/402 Box/Vol # 13761, “Admissions and Discharges” Brandon, first quarter 1902.
14. Winnipeg Free Press, 26 July 1903, p. 17.
15. F. J. Paul Hackett, Sylvia Abonyi, and Roland F. Dyck, “Anthropometric indices of First Nations children and youth on first entry to Manitoba/Saskatchewan residential schools—1919 to 1953,” International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 75(1), 1 January 2016.
16. John Semmens, “‘Notes on Personal History’, pp. 94-95, 99; Library and Archives of Canada, RG10 GRB/BAN W84-85/402 Box/Vol # 13761, “Admissions and Discharges.”
17. Library and Archives of Canada, RG10 GRB/BAN W84-85/402 Box/Vol. 13761, “Admissions and Discharges;” Library and Archives of Canada, RG10, Volume 6256, File 576-1, part 1, T. Ferrier to J. D. McLean, Secretary, Department of Indian Affairs, 29 May 1912. For more information about the cemetery, see: Clare Cook, Anne Lindsay, David Cuthbert, “A Cup of Cold Water: Alfred Kirkness and the Brandon Residential School Cemeteries,” Manitoba History, No. 78, Summer, 2015, pp. 29–38. The history of this cemetery is ongoing, as at the time of writing, the owners of Turtle Crossing are requesting permission to make significant changes to the park that have the potential to impact this cemetery. A hearing relating to this request is pending.
18. Library and Archives of Canada, RG10, Volume 6256, File 576-1, part 1, Ferrier to the Secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs, 5 June 1915.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 14 April 2021