St. Barnabas Indian Residential School | Onion Lake

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The gates of St. Barnabas IRS. Photo by May Ann Assailly The Saskatchewan Anglican Journal. December 2012

St. Barnabas (Onion Lake) Indian Residential School opened in 1892 and was destroyed by fire in 1943. The school was operated by the Anglican Church of Canada at Onion Lake, on Treaty 6 land on what is now the Saskatchewan/Alberta border. The then lay catechist (and fluent Cree speaker) John R. Matheson started the school in a Mission house that he and his wife had paid for and constructed. It initially held 10 children but grew substantially over time. The school was destroyed by fire in 1943 and students were moved to St. Alban’s College in Prince Albert.

Survivor Stories

Allen Sapp was born in 1928 on the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan. He spent several years at the Anglican boarding school at Onion Lake. He described it as a lonely and unhappy experience.

No one ever abused me physically or sexually but the way we were disciplined was not like home. We were forbidden to speak Cree—the teachers and everyone connected to the school spoke English—but Cree was the only language I knew.

If we were caught speaking Cree to one another we would be punished. One particular day I was caught speaking Cree to one of my classmates and told that I would have to go up and remain in my room. That afternoon there was a cowboy movie showing in town and I so wanted to go to that movie. I sat in my room and cried.68 (Vol. 1, p. 624)

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Once, at the Anglican school in Onion Lake, Ula Hotonami was strapped by the laundry superintendent for joking with a student in the hallway. The principal encountered her shortly afterwards and asked her why she was crying. When she explained what happened, the principal told her to go into his office.

And he put me in his office, and he had told me, “You wait there,” and so I, I waited in his office. We were never allowed in his office, like, not, and he, he went down to the laundry room, and must have went and talked to her. Within two weeks she was gone, anyway. So, I don’t know. His name was Mr. Card and that. And so he told me, “You can miss school ’til the swelling goes down.” So, I was thinking what’s going on here, like, you know, why, why do I have to miss school now? I can’t go to work. I can’t go to school. And so I asked him, “Well, what am I gonna do? Like, I have to go to school and that.” And he told me, “Well just, you, you can’t do anything, anyway. You can’t hold anything in your hand,” he said, “they’re all swollen.” Like, my hand was just puffed up, like, from the strapping that I got.531 (SS. p. 150)

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In 1923, the parents of Edward B., a student at the Anglican school at Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, received the following letter: “We are going to tell you how we are treated. I am always hungry. We only get two slice of bread and one plate porridge. Seven children ran away because there [sic] are hungry, two from Saddle and one from Frog Lake, and two from Snake Plain, 3 girls and 4 boys because are always hungry too. I sold all my clothes away because I am hungry too. Try and send me some money, $2.50, please to buy something to eat and send me pictures those I left in the wagon.”120

The letter ended up in the hands of F. C. Mears, a parliamentary press gallery reporter, who forwarded it to Deputy Minister Duncan Campbell Scott. He brushed off the complaint and said the student had “no cause for complaint.” He also wrote, “Ninety-nine per cent of the Indian children at these schools are too fat.”121 Indian Affairs eventually identified the boy and informed his father that “your boy is being well fed and clothed.”122 In reality, there had been ongoing concerns about the quality of food at the school, and Scott knew that. Just two years earlier, school inspector Sibbald had reported negatively on the quality of the bread and the fact that the children had no milk to drink. A follow-up report by Indian agent L. Turner had concluded that, although the food was adequate, “there was nothing to drink upon the tables.” He recommended that the principal be instructed that “these conditions must be improved.”123 Scott himself had issued instructions that the food at the school be improved.124 It does not appear that a news story on the issue was ever published, despite the fact that the parents, or their acquaintances, had taken the issue to the press. (Vol. 1, p. 507)

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In 1931, Mrs. W. F. Dreaver informed Indian Affairs that she was refusing to return her daughter, Mary, to the Anglican school at Onion Lake because of the poor medical treatment her son had received there. She wrote that her son had returned to the school in the fall of 1930. At admission, he was examined and declared to be in good health. He became sick, but his parents were not informed of the illness until December. In response to the telegrams that the concerned parents sent the school, Henry Ellis, the school principal, assured them their boy would soon be out of bed. Eventually, the parents were able to get him back home, a trip they had to pay for themselves. The local doctor, who had originally approved him for entrance to the school, announced he was “far gone with TB.” He died a few months later. Mrs. Dreaver said that rather than send her daughter to a school where “the children are neglected,” she would send her to the local day school.456 She apparently succeeded: the school records show that Mary Dreaver had been discharged that term and was attending the Mistawasis day school.457 (Volume 1, Part 1, p. 444)

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An Intergenerational Story by Alvina Dreaver Why My Dad Went to Jail

I remember a way back in years, about fifty years ago. I was about five years old at that time. There was flu going around. A lot of children died.

Three of my sisters died within two days. Nancy and Gladys died at home on the Muskoday Reserve. Beatrice died at the Onion Lake residential school. The news of her death did not reach my parents for about two weeks. Beatrice was buried at Onion Lake. My dad wanted to build coffins for the burial of my two other sisters but he needed some lumber. To get the lumber he needed, he wanted to sell one of his steers. To sell the steer he had to get a permit from Mr. Simpson, the farm instructor. But the farm instructor refused to give him a permit.

My dad went ahead and sold one of the steers anyway to a farmer in the Birch Hills district. He then bought the lumber and white material he needed to make the coffins. He made the coffins and buried my sisters.

About a month later, the RCMP came to our home. Mr. Simpson was with them. He showed the police where we lived. They took my dad away because he had sold a steer without a permit. My dad spent three months in jail.

(As told to Shirley Bear, Alvina Dreaver is the daughter of Gilbert James Bear, and his wife Kathleen Maude, both deceased)

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Matheson Family – Four members buried at Onion Lake


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