The theme of International Museum Day varies every year; this year, the theme is Museums and Contested Histories: Saying the Unspeakable in Museums. The purpose of this theme is to “highlight how the acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation.”
Reconciliation is at the forefront of many minds, especially with this year marking the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation. The residential school system has officially been termed a cultural genocide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was formed on June 2, 2008, with the mission of uncovering evidence on Canada’s Indian Residential School system (IRS) and fostering healing. Although the main task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was completed in December 2015, it falls to the rest of Canada to respond to the calls to action outlined by the TRC, including sustained public education and dialogue.
A residential school is defined as a boarding school for “Indian” students that was in part financed by the federal government of Canada. Under this definition, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the residential school at Lac La Biche, Notre Dame des Victoires, was in operation from 1893-1898. We know the site under many names: Notre Dame des Victoires, Hospice St. Joseph, and the Lac La Biche Mission.
From 1862 until the establishment of the industrial school, the boarding school run at Notre Dame des Victoires was not an official residential school as it predates the official system and did not receive federal funding before then. The boarding school established in 1905 was not a residential school either as it did not receive federal funding and First Nations students were to be sent to residential schools around the province. While Métis students were placed in residential schools at times, federal funding was not provided for them. It is important to note that the current owners of the mission site, the Lac La Biche Mission Historical Society, are not affiliated with the school or religious organizations that ran it.
This entry is meant to give a brief summary of the history of Notre Dame des Victories and is not intended to be an ultimate guide to the site’s history or residential schools. This is a short glimpse that will hopefully serve as a good introduction as we move towards reconciliation.
“And further, Her Majesty agrees to maintain schools for instruction in such reserves hereby made as to Her Government of the Dominion of Canada may seem advisable, whenever the Indians of the reserve shall deserve it.”
—Excerpt from Treaty 6, signed 1876
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
—John A. Macdonald to the House of Commons, May 9, 1883
The Indian Residential School System
The era of residential schools may be over, but the effects are certainly still felt. Roughly 150,000 Indigenous children (30% of Indigenous children) were placed in residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996. The purpose of residential schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into the mainstream Eurocentric society. This was to be done by completely preventing children from learning and participating in their own culture and forcing Eurocentric education upon them. The plan was to target children because they would not have been exposed to their own culture for very long, a “blank slate” that could be formed as the government wished.
To do this, the Canadian government partnered with religious organizations that had previous experience with schooling, namely the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, and Presbyterians. These religious groups often had mission schools already established and were the only organizations providing schooling in the north. Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin in particular frequently asked the federal government to help existing schools continue educating Indigenous children by increasing grants. Bishop Grandin continued to channel his efforts to promote industrial and residential schools throughout the rest of his life.
“The fact is, that if you wish to educate those children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes — it is to be hoped only the good tastes — of civilized people.”
—Public Works Minister Sir Hector Langevin, 1883
Initially, attendance at the residential schools was not mandatory. Many children were in the school for a few years before being pulled out by parents to help the family. Other students were pulled out due to unaddressed complaints with the schools. The full version of the IRS system was not officially in place until the 1884 Amendment to the Indian Act of 1876. This amendment stated that First Nations children were to have mandatory education in order to read and write in English.
In 1873, a federal subsidy for schooling was announced by the Canadian government for an Oblate school in St. Albert for $300 per year. Payments were later authorized for other schools under the condition that they had at least twenty-five students. By 1876, three schools—St. Albert, Lac La Biche, and Île-à-la-Crosse—were announced to be eligible to receive federal support from the Ministry of the Interior, with $300 to be split between Lac La Biche and Île-à-la-Crosse, not awarded to each school.
Lac La Biche Boarding School 1862-1893
The Lac La Biche Mission, Notre Dame des Victoires, was a Roman Catholic mission established by the missionary order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It was established in 1853 by Father Rene Remas and moved to its current site in 1885 by Father Augustin Maisonneuve and Father Jean Tissot. A school was established in 1862 with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity, also known as the Grey Nuns. The Grey Nuns were particularly involved in hospitals, orphanages, and schools.
The Sisters taught between fifteen and twenty classes each week. Classes included English, French, Nêhiyawêwin (Cree), Dene (Chipewyan), theology, drawing, painting, and mathematics. The school at Lac La Biche held not only boarding students, but day students as well. Attendance records are rare, but a few numbers can still be found. For example, in 1876, there were twenty-five to thirty children attending school, and in 1886, there were thirty-eight.
“We currently have fourteen poor little girls and one orphan, as well as five boarders and some day pupils from time to time. All winter we took in little girls in order to prepare them for their First Communion; we were forced to put them up in the kitchen, and it goes without saying that it put the poor cooks in an awkward position. If we only had space in which to accommodate these poor little backwoods children, we would have the means to transform them into fervent Christians. […] Truly, these, poor backwoods children lack neither in talent, nor in spirit, nor in heart, but rather they are just lacking in culture. Oh, if only we had the resources, what good we could do!”
—Sister Youville, letter to Sister Charlebois, Assistant General of the Grey Nuns, April 12, 1875
Life in the area was often difficult due to the environment. Many people already living in the area, mainly Nêhiyawak (Cree), Métis, and (to a lesser extent) Dene, already knew how to thrive in the often harsh climate. However, most of the Oblates and nuns were from Montreal or France and were largely unused to having to provide entirely for themselves. There were three sources of food at the mission: hunting, farming, and fishing. It was rare for all three to fail at the same time, but there were instances when they would have to rely heavily on one source alone, usually fishing. In these instances, it would have been difficult to provide for the clergy, let alone large numbers of children.
“A quick word about our harvest: 150 bushels of barley and 138 bales of bad hay are all we have. Since last autumn, we have already eaten almost 80 bales. We estimate that we will sow 80 bales this spring, and beyond that we will just have to eat biscuits, etc. etc. from now until the next crop. Our potatoes kept well this winter; our garden crop was very small, and this year we will gather even less as we have so few seeds to plant. […] Our chickens are still alive, but only because of our care to winter them and to keep them away from the dogs. […] For two days now, the weather has been good; if this continues, we will soon be welcoming spring, which we anxiously await. Hay is rare and our animals are thin. I worry that many will die. Just today, April 12th, we’ve heard that the dike at the mill is broken, which means a lack of bread. The travelers take with them the little bit of flour that we have left. At the house, we live as well as we can. At least we have lots of fish to eat.”
—Sister Youville, letter to Sister Charlebois, Assistant General of the Grey Nuns, April 12, 1875
Living in a religious environment would have been no easy task as well. Many members of the clergy at the Lac La Biche Mission, including Bishop Henri Faraud, were noted to be very strict with the sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony) to the point that they were accused of being “tainted with Jansenism” by Bishop Grandin in the late 1860s. Jansenism, characterized by severe self-discipline, was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1600s. According to Bishop Grandin, the Oblates at Lac La Biche were being overly strict with the Métis and First Nations dealing with Christianity for the first time. Bishop Grandin also remarked that they should not have been held to the same standards as Europeans raised in Christianity.
Hospice St. Joseph was initially open from 1862-1872, when it closed due to poor enrollment. It did reopen when more students were available by 1875. Once steamboats were travelling on the Athabasca River in 1887, Notre Dame des Victoires began to be bypassed as a stopping point and warehouse for trade in the north. Many Métis from the mission area relocated to Athabasca Landing for work. With the loss of a portion of its congregation and the students with it, the mission attempted to make up for its loss in part through funding from the Dominion Government for industrial schools. Eventually, the school received funding to become an residential school, which officially opened in 1893.
Lac La Biche Residential School 1893-1898
Notre Dame des Victoires was an industrial school. This means that in addition to academic classes, students were taught skills that could be used in different industries. Father Henri Grandin, who became superior of the Lac La Biche Mission in 1889, sent a latter to the Superior General of Indian Affairs on June 30, 1897, mentioning that the industrial classes included farming, gardening, sewing, knitting, cooking, laundry, and housekeeping. Roman Catholic mission classes also often included carpentry and boat building.
“Would it be too much to ask the Department to instruct their Agent to use his influence with his Indians in order to bring the parents to leave their children at school until we are satisfied that they know enough to be benefited by their stay with us. This is our greatest difficulty just now. After three or four years, and even some times after only two years in the School, parents must take their children away, to have their help in their work. Good advice from the Agent or [farm] instructor at such time would induce some of the parents, if not all, to leave their children with us and it would be a great help to us.”
—Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, letter to Indian Commissioner Amédée E. Forget, April 14, 1897
With the reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many reports of sexual abuse have been brought to light. In regard to Lac La Biche, however, there are no documented instances of this abuse during the years that Notre Dame des Victoires was a residential school. The only mention found pertaining to Lac La Biche at all by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a letter from Father Jean Tissot at Lac La Biche to Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché dated April 19, 1861. He mentioned that he was not surprised that Jean L’Heureux was sent away from Fort Pitt in the 1860s for making sexual overtures to young boys, as Tissot had heard of his unsavoury reputation. Note: The TRC’s report erroneously states that L’Heureux was sent away from Lac La Biche, but the actual letter says Fort Pitt. L’Heureux’s career over the next thirty years included impersonating a Jesuit priest, impersonating an Oblate priest, serving as a translator during the negotiation of Treaty 7, and working as a translator for Indian Affairs. He resigned from this last position in 1891 when it was again discovered that he was sexually abusing young boys. From the records, it does not appear that a criminal investigation was ever opened, as was the case with many similar incidents. In the vast majority of cases, government and church officials were more likely to simply fire the abuser or encourage their resignation than bring criminal charges.
In 1896, it was discovered by government officials that the convent used as the Lac La Biche school was dilapidated. By this point, the nuns, orphans, and students were living in the former residence of Bishop Henri Faraud and taking classes in the old Grey Nuns’ convent. To the officials, this was convenient timing; parents at Saddle Lake wanted a residential school closer to home. The Saddle Lake parents wanted schooling for their children, but were trying to prevent their children from attending the residential school in Lac La Biche due in part to the rough roads and difficult visitation. The nuns were notified that the school was to be moved to Saddle Lake and the bishops agreed with the decision. In 1898, the school was officially moved to Saddle Lake. In 1931, the school was moved again to St. Paul. After a successful protest movement, the school was put under First Nations administration. It is currently the University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills.
Lac La Biche Boarding School 1905-1963
The boarding school at the Lac La Biche Mission did not open again until 1905 with the arrival of the Daughters of Jesus (French: Filles de Jésus). This school was open to all who wished to attend regardless of ethnicity, although the students were presumably Roman Catholic. This school, as mentioned earlier, was not a residential school. Many former students still live in the region.
“It was a really good convent as far as they go. […] The school was known for teaching French. It was pretty good; I wish some of my kids would have been taught there.”
—Edgar Ladouceur, 1981 Pow Wow Supplement
Theresa Meltenberger, who attended the school for five years during the 1930s and 1940s, noted that she was placed in the school by her mother while her parents were out in the bush. According to Meltenberger, education was her mother’s main priority. Although she had difficulties with proper nutrition and discipline, she had this to say:
“It certainly has given me an understanding of life and I don’t want to judge this by today’s standards because the nuns most likely figured they were doing God’s work, you know. So who am I to assess blame to them, you know, but it took me a long time to come to terms with it. […] So the good Lord says you are supposed to forgive, but there’s nothing in there that says you forget.”
—Theresa Meltenberger, resident at Lac La Biche Boarding School
Throughout the rest of her interview, which can be found in Métis Memories of Residential Schools, published by the Métis Nation of Alberta, she also notes that she learned important skills and was proud that she and the other children had a great deal of fun during recreation time. Their play included swimming and building forts, rafts, and snowballs. Other students who attended the school around the same time stated that the nuns were strict, but no one was abused.
It is up to us as people living together in this country to work together for reconciliation to happen. Without commitment, reconciliation is impossible to achieve. Those who do not know the past cannot realize how it effects each of us today.
In the Commission’s view, there is an urgent need in Canada to develop historically literate citizens who understand why and how the past is relevant to their own lives and the future of the country. Museums have an ethical responsibility to foster national reconciliation, and not simply tell one party’s version of the past.
—Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, page 251
It is quite difficult to research the years in which Notre Dame des Victoires was a residential school, as many records are split between the Provincial Archives of Alberta and the archives at the Centre du patrimoine in St. Boniface. We can already see a limited vision of the past through what small resources are available to us. However, we must listen to the testimony of witnesses and survivors of the residential school system in order to give meaning to the past. The experiences of students at residential schools were both positive and negative, with some children having an overall positive experience and many having an overwhelmingly horrifying experience. Their testimonies are all valid and the experience of one former student is not necessarily the same as another. It is our hope that former students can continue sharing their stories with us all and that we as residents of the Lac La Biche region can move together towards reconciliation with understanding.
We thank the Lac La Biche Mission Historical Society for their contributions to this article. To learn more about Notre Dame des Victoires, we recommend visiting the Lac La Biche Mission site. Directions can be found at their website.