Sara Riel
Sara Riel

Louis Riel’s sister, Sara Riel, worked at the Île-à-la-Crosse school. She was one of the first Metis women in the Red River region to join the Grey Nuns (Sisters of Charity). ( http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/riel_sara_1848-83.html ) Initially, the education at the school was in French, but on her arrival in the early 1870s, Sara Riel introduced English lessons. The Métis opposed the education of their children in English, and demanded that the school be closed. Instead, the English classes were dropped. Parents at Île-à-la-Crosse continued to object to the treatment their children received at the school. Deaths of children, such as that of a four-year-old in 1875, led some local families to accuse the Oblates and Sisters of Charity of either negligence or being too harsh in disciplining the children.23 (Canada’s Residential Schools: The Métis Experience. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Vol. 3, p. 32)

In a letter to her brother Louis, Sara Riel complained of the parents’ lack of gratitude, writing, “Here in the North our people, the Métis, do not appreciate the benefits of instruction.… We are required to fight against the indifference and caprice of children as well as against the weaknesses of their parents.” For example, she was unable to convince the parents that English lessons benefitted the students. In the face of persistent protest, the lessons were dropped in 1876.24 (Canada’s Residential Schools: The Métis Experience. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Vol. 3, p. 32)

“Between 1876 and 1880 she became godmother to several of the community’s children. Earlier, in 1872, Sara Riel had suffered from a severe case of pneumonia and was believed to be dying. After being given the Last Sacrament, she experienced a seemingly miraculous full recovery, and later obtained permission to change her name to Sister Marguerite-Marie, in honour of the saint who had been invoked in prayers.” (http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/riel_sara_1848-83.html)

In 1874 conditions at the school were so dire that the Grey Nuns had to ask parents to take their children back temporarily because they could not feed them. (p. 68 They came for the Children). Illness was also common; Sara Riel, herself, died of tuberculosis in 1883.25 In that year, there were only 27 students on the roll, with an average daily attendance of 23.26 Following the 1885 North-West Rebellion, the school was down to six residents: all orphans.27 (Canada’s Residential Schools: The Métis Experience. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 3, p. 32)