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The Beautiful Passages in the IRS Concerto

The Beautiful Passages in the IRS Concerto

Mark DeWolf


The history of Canada’s Indian Residential School system — a system that lasted 113 years, involved dozens of different IRS institutions spread across the country, and was run by several different Christian denominations — is rather like a piece of classical music that is composed of several different melodic passages. While the IRS narrative that has been repeatedly presented to Canadians (and the world) could be compared to the cacophony produced by some first-year music students tackling Beethoven’s unfinished and quite gloomy Minuet in D minor, the complete story of the residential schools is in fact like a full-fledged concerto — which, I will remind you, is a large musical work that features a soloist accompanied by an orchestra or other large ensemble, usually with three movements in the order of fast, slow, and fast tempo. It is a cycle of several contrasting movements integrated tonally and often thematically.

A thorough examination of the Truth and Reconciliation’s Final Report reveals something of the scale, complexity and contrasting elements of the IRS “concerto”, but for those who would prefer a shorter and far better summary of the system’s history than the TRC provided, here is a small piece of the system’s concerto that gives you some idea of the many beautiful and warm passages to be found in a work that certainly held some sombre, even grim sections as well. As I write this, I’m thinking of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor.

The soloist in this complex piece of IRS history will almost certainly be a woman from a small village on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore who served in two Indian Residential Schools — All Saints in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and Shingwauk in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario — and made the most of her retirement years by collecting and distributing memories and testimonies of individuals who actually attended and worked at the schools — testimonies that run counter to the swelling wave of negative testimonies that have provided terrific fodder for the media for more than 20 years.

And it is those more positive testimonies that — could they be heard — would supply much of the accompaniment in the IRS Concerto, with important contributions by the various sections of the orchestra — former students, former staff and former administrators.

Reading this relatively short essay, you may get some idea of the more beautiful and uplifting parts of the IRS story. And to give you an idea of how the various parts of the orchestra work together in the concerto, I’m weaving together the testimonies of former students with those that describe the experiences of IRS staff and administrators.  Read on.


I must defend the wonderful work that was done by women in the past and who were just as beautiful and dedicated as you and the women in the church are today. …. Many former staff, who came from the churches across Canada and from England, have been broken-hearted that our Anglican Church members are accusing them of cruelty and abuse of all kinds. The secular world was not interested in helping our Aboriginal people years ago, but the churches were. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

My girls came bouncing into my room after morning chapel; they jumped on my leg and gave me a hug and kiss. The darlings. Eleanor Montgomery, former IRS Girls’ Supervisor

Agnes has led a dedicated life. When her father died, she was only 18, and she raised the rest of the children as her mother was in and out of the mental hospital and not responsible. When the last family members were out on their own, she came to the school in Punnichy (Gordon’s IRS). She was excellent with the Senior Girls. They loved her. So did the rest of the children. – Eva Lilley

Students at Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Punnichy

I was happy at school. I made many friends with the boys and girls, and learned many things – farming, carpentry, gardening, etc. We worked hard but had fun too. … Clothing for the pupils came from Sunday Schools in the south of Ontario – summer and winter clothing, and toys at Christmas. There was a school library with many interesting books for boys and girls. There was a tennis court where we learned to play and score the game. This court was used in winter as a hockey rink. I liked it at school and was sorry to leave. – Dr. Redfern Louttit

It was Chief Shingwauk himself who wanted a teaching wigwam (a boarding school) built for his Ojibway children, where “children of the Great Chippeway Lake would be received and clothes and fed and taught how to read and how to write, and also how to farm and build houses and make clothing, so that bye and bye they might go back and teach their own people” – from the Little Pines Journal

Ojibwe Chief Shingwaukonse (Little Pine) 1773-1854

I remember clearly when Mom and the other W.A. (Women’s Auxiliary) members prepared a box of clothing — they referred to it as a bale — for the Indian schools. It was not second-hand clothing but always contained a quilt, socks, mittens and diapers. They were hand made. None of these women had much to give, except their times. They all had big families themselves and found it hard to make ends meet. It was a work of love, which they continued for many years. – Ellen (Van Buskirk) Strople

Dear Mrs. Kennedy. I would be very glad to see your baby boy when you come back to school. The children were very anxious to see the baby boy. … A few of the girls who were sick have got up this morning and went to school, and the boys too. Ralph Weasel Fat went to bed and I was a little sad about him because he is my best friend at school and I hope he will be better by tomorrow. You know that it’s not nice when our friend is sick, laying in bed for two or three days. I think that’s all for now. May God bless the whole family. Alfred Standing Alone (St. Paul’s IRS student, writing in 1952)

I did spend some time putting up hay with the Indian boys one summer and enjoyed that very much. I never heard or saw any evidence of cruelty by the staff to the children, and knowing my father, I’m sure such conduct would never have been tolerated. – Canon K.A. Minchin, son of 1936-1941 the Rev. Arthur Minchin, Principal of the Elkhorn Indian Residential School from 1936 to 1941, and the Shingwauk IRS from 1941-1948

The MacDonald sisters said they asked the Indian department if they could go to Shubenacadie IRS. They were not disadvantaged in any way, but were allowed to go.  They enjoyed it very much. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

In the establishment of the fully modern Newnham Cottage Hospital, with ten beds two cots and one bassinet, and in the creation of a new, three-storey Residential School building with ample accommodations for 100 pupils, the Church of England in Canada has furnished unquestionable proof of her deep and practical interest in all that pertains to the highest welfare of her numerous and devoted Indian people in the Moose Factory and James Bay areas. – Rev. Dr. T.B.R. Westgate (Field Secretary of the Indian and Eskimo Residential Schools Commission in the 1940s) – Indian Affairs School Files

I was at Gordon’s School for several years and I left with a very pleasant feeling. The students were treated with love and care.  All staff tried very hard to work as a team. We had many happy lovely days. We worked long, hard hours, never complaining. … Christmas Eve was a very special time. Parents of children would attend — they walked miles. After service the parents stayed for lunch, children and staff joined in with the visit, this gave us a good feeling. Agnes Gillespie, former IRS staff member

My Mom had attended St. Mary’s Mission and had often told me her years there were among the happiest. She excelled in the crafts she learned at St. Mary’s and she loved raising her voice in songs to praise Jesus. – Del Nahanee

Terry Mileswki of the CBC said to me on the phone, when I told him good work was done in the IRS, “That doesn’t make a story.” He wasn’t interested in talking to me. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

Dear Mrs. Kennedy, Congratulations. I was glad to hear that you had a baby boy. I hope you will be back here at the school soon so we could see your baby. Some of the children are still sick in bed. The Cubs are now collecting money for their uniforms. We are having lots of fun skating. That’s all and good-bye. Yours truly, Charlie Small Face – student at St. Paul’s IRS, writing in 1952

If it were not for those Sisters, those missionaries, right now, my dear people would not know a word of English – Julie Beaver Auger

Yes, I remember old Father Le Jacq. I thought he was an awful nice priest. He could talk Indian. He wasn’t old then but he was just like a father to the kids (at William’s Lake School). He was kind. – Susan Phillips

I spent from 1963 to 1967 in Shubenacadie (the only IRS institution in the Atlantic Provinces). I dearly loved that assignment and the children were very precious to me. I always found them very happy. … I took the children skating and tobogganing. The children and I enjoyed these activities and we had many coasts down the hill with outside music, which we had rigged up ourselves. – Sister Kathleen Kelly, former IRS staff member

The children who came to the boarding schools were looked after by devoted church women, and what they did was not evil. The W.A. (Women’s Auxiliary) women who supported the staff in the schools … made clothes and quilts for the Indian children in the residential schools. I remember Mrs. Davidson in Prince Albert opening up a bale of little girls’ slips. They were lovely and all handmade. The little girls loved them. … The W.A. in Canada also made boys’ pyjamas, girls’ nighties, knit socks and toques and supplied sports equipment. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

Calgary Diocese branch of the Women’s Auxiliary in 1917

They (students at the Shubenacadie IRS) also got honors from the music festival in Halifax. These were very memorable days. I loved the 14 years I spent there.  I worked very hard for 80 children — sewed continually, even late hours at night until one in the morning sometimes … taught seven children to play the piano and organ, taught them singing and the flute. … One of the girls Marion Dedam has her own choir in Burnt Church (New Brunswick) and plays the organ for Sunday masses etc. – Sister Eleanor, a former IRS staff member

In their speeches so many former students spoke highly of their training in the old school (Elkhorn IRS) years ago. One former student who now lives and works in Los Angeles said, “I have to come back every so often to see the old school and reminisce about my happy years as a young boy growing up here. .. It’s great to walk through the halls of learning and sit in the classrooms and in the dining room. .. For many memories of this place still remain in my thoughts!” – the Rev. Canon Daniel Umpherville, former IRS student and elementary school teacher at various reserves throughout Saskatchewan

It would not be feasible for schools to be dotted all over your vast North with the hope that the parents would see their children go to school. The most important thing to them was making a living, trapping. … Many children did not come to the school until they were older, 9 years old or 10. Therefore they did not progress to high grades. Only a few were able to attend high school. At Elkhorn we had Crees from the North – The Pas, Manitoba and surrounding areas — and Sioux from Griswold, Manitoba (near Brandon). Therefore we had two native languages — and as a result English was always spoke so we could all communicate. I don’t remember any punishment for not speaking English. Winnifred (Jeffrey) Mulligan, former IRS staff member

In 1948, I was stationed in Cranbrook B.C. for five years. There were 60 boys and 60 girls. I was with the girls. Truly there were very happy times. … Sometimes as we sat around the table in the playroom, the little fellows would teach me Indian words, but they spoke their own local Indian language at home … each had a different dialect. … One day the boys were out and found a Bambi alone. They brought her into the building and the Oblate Fathers allowed the Bambi to be cared for all winter indoors. She had a special sleeping place and had special Bambi food. – Sister Mary Jean, former IRS staff member

Our years in the schools were happy ones, and the parent were keen to have their children educated. We were fortunate to have many dedicated staff members, several who were native. Archer of course spoke Cree. .. Our students were not forbidden to speak their native tongues — we had Cree, Sioux, Saulteau and Chipewyan. They all understood the need to speak a universal language to be able to communicate with other people … Every so often I get a phone call from an old student. They send me pictures of their families. – Margaret Scrase, wife of IRS Principal the Rev. Archer Scrase

Canon Scrase was a quiet, caring and gentle man, and he will be sorely missed by … the multitude of students to whom he was like a second father. – Tom Whyte and Archie Inkster

Canon Archer Scrase and Louisa Hunt, at All Saints’ Indian Residential School in Lac La Ronge

I must confess that I did not try to learn a native language. The Chaplain who followed me there — the Rev. Larry Jackson — did. We also had one teacher — the Rev. Ed Smith at the Birtle residential school — who was Indian and who used to encourage the students by talking to them in Cree. – Eleanor Montgomery, former IRS staff member

Irene Hoff of Odanak, Quebec, went to the Chapleau IRS and said her parent sent her there. When she heard of compensation for former students of the IRS, she said to me, “I will not be taking any money from the government. I was not abused, my family was not, and nobody I know was abused in the schools”.  She went on to high school from grade VIII (the highest grade in the IRS), joined the army, and was adjutant general in the CWAC (Canadian Women’s Army Corps) during WWII. After the war, she worked for Indian Affairs until she retired. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

I’d like to thank Sister Gilberta for all that she taught me. I’ve never met a more caring person. She just never stopped working from morning till night. She was like a mother to me. – Catherine Willis, former IRS student

One whisper of abuse … and it would have been “pick your bags and get out” — but there was no indication of abuse whatsoever. Paula and Roger (children of the Rev. Douglas Wickenden, Principal of the Shingwauk IRS, and his wife Ethel) knew the students well, and at a class reunion they both attended a few years ago, they were greeted with enthusiastic friendliness by the native students, which I found cheering to me. – Ethel Wickenden

I enjoyed working with the children (at St. Paul’s IRS near Cardston, Alberta) and found their parents a proud congenial people. They were interested in their children having an education. … You treated the children as your own with love and understanding. – Winnifred (Jeffrey) Mulligan, former IRS staff member

Students at St. Paul’s Anglican IRS circa 1960

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could again see or talk to Miss Atkinson – she worked in the laundry room. – Nellie (Sands) McDowell, former IRS student

As Dr. Westgate wrote in his memoirs, the Chief at Moose Factory came to him and said that they had 100 children who wanted to be educated. Dr. Westgate said he ordered the desks from the government right away. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

I am absolutely convinced that most of the people that were staff at residential schools were people of integrity, compassion and with a deep Christian conviction. It saddens me that some people may think otherwise.” – Anglican Bishop Peter Coffin

If it had not been for Shingwauk (an IRS in Sault Ste. Marie), I could not be in my present state of life. Shingwauk saved my life. Shingwauk gave me that chance to live and grow … to develop and mature from a safe haven. Shingwauk gave me an education from which to ‘unfold my potential’. – Dorothy Martin-Currie, former IRS student

Most of my friends went to the residential schools and they are now leaders in the community. – Tina (Kakepetum) Mason, an Ojibway-Cree who wrote the 1990 play “DIVA Ojibway”

Two teachers in particular stand out in their dedication to the children. They spent many extra hours helping and encouraging their pupils. – Hilda Workman, former Elkhorn IRS staff member and contributor of photographs to Bernice Logan’s book “The Teaching Wigwams”

I am doing all I can to give what I feel is the true picture of the situation (the IRS system) and always take the opportunity to express both those positive aspects of the residential schools’ history for which we should be grateful, and also to express out thanks for the many fine men and women who gave so many years of loving service.” – Anglican Bishop Christopher Williams

Some (IRS staff members) were lovely people. Mrs. Kingston was a lovely person, also nurse Gwen Stewart from Sydney Mines, NS. Also a Miss MacDonald, a second cousin of Bishop John Anderson. Both had Indian blood. Many at Selkirk (St. Paul’s Industrial School in Manitoba) had Indian blood. They are good people. – Eleanor Montgomery

I didn’t mind going there because everyone was having a hard time at home. We were sure to be fed, clothed and housed at the school. I don’t remember ever going hungry. At supper there was always a big pot of stew and there was lots of fish. … In the summer we went home. But I didn’t mind going back (to the school). The parents had no choice or no jobs. – Evelyn Louie

The nuns really taught us a lot — how to cook, how to clean, to sew, do laundry. Today I still use those method. I still wish there were boarding schools for my children and grandchildren. – Rosemary Pard, former IRS student

The history of the Methodist and United Churches service among Canadian Natives would seem to show that the many men and women who volunteered for such service honestly felt ‘the call’ to share the life and teachings of Christ, not to destroy their culture but to bland our Christian faith with the native spirituality. – Rev. Bernard Lee

Canon Norman Pilcher was broken-hearted over his life’s work with Aboriginal children being maligned so badly. I met with him in the nursing home in Oakville and consoled him during my visit. That year I went to General Synod in St. Catherine’s and gave a presentation on the IRS to delegates there. One of Canon Pilcher’s former students in Punnichy (the Rev’d Arthur Anderson) came to me and asked for Canon Pilcher’s address.  Later, his daughter Elizabeth told me  that when her father received a very kind letter from about twenty former students, he stopped taking his pills and died. He was finally at peace. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

In the month that followed, Canon Pilcher received a thank-you note signed by 25 former students from Gordon’s. “Bless you. All these people remember you,” the card read. 

I went to two Boarding Schools – Old Mackay situated at The Pas, Manitoba – then I boarded at Elkhorn School when I was going to high school in that little town in Manitoba. Then I was Principal at Pelican School, Sioux Lookout, Ontario. Now I’m professor of Cree at the University of Regina. – Dr. Ahab Spence

At Christmas time I received a note from a Shingwauk IRS graduate which read “There was a letter I saw posted at Walpole – a letter from a top level Anglican apologizing to the natives for ‘disrupting’ their lives and causing untold anguish. I would like to write him and tell him it was the best thing that ever happened to me. … I went to Shingwauk when I was 6 years old and never recall an instance when (a rule against speaking an Indian language) was ever enforced.” … The majority of the IRS staff members I have known over the years, far from being the arrogant and deceiving persons portrayed in that CBC film (“Where the Spirit Lives”) were trained and caring individuals doing their best in challenging circumstances, often with a saving sense of humor and fun. – Nancy Minchin Thompson, a long time educator and Girl Guide leader in the Powassan area of Ontario

Nancy Minchin Thompson

I think they made it all up. – Beatrice Nahhowtow, referring to the CBC film “Where the Spirit Lives”

They used to have nice birthday parties every month and a movie every month too. On Valentine’s Day they used to have dances down in the barn. Sister used to make candy. She taught piano and flute. I loved her like a mother. – Catherine Willis, former IRS student

I do not think the children were abused at any of the schools I was at. There was strict discipline at times but I do not think was harsher than discipline in general at that time. – Willa (Ascah) Cluley, wife of the Rev. Dennis Pearson Cluley

In my experience, many parents were determined that their children should be educated. – Canon Norman Pilcher

Recently I talked on the phone to Chief Rod King of Saskatoon (who had attended All Saints IRS). He said “you know, Bernice, most of our chiefs and other leaders went to boarding schools”. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

When they (the IRS students) came home from the nearby high school they were attending and where white children had taunted them, I would try to impress on them that they should hold their head high – for they were the first Americans. I always hoped I had eased their saddened hearts. – Ann Cole, former IRS staff member

The notion of depriving the children of their right to speak their native language escapes me. I never saw or heard it enforced. – Nellie (Sands) McDowell, former IRS student

My days at the residential school in Moose Factory were a good experience and it gave me a good send off in the world. – Elsie Chilton, former IRS student

A group of Moose Factory IRS students in 1939

I recently buried a dear old lady whom you might have known at the school — Elsie Stewart — and she spoke of the children there with great affection. – Rt. Rev. Anthony Burton

He (Rev. T.B.R. Westgate D.D.) wanted to be a missionary from early childhood, and never swerved from that goal. He was the only ordained clergyman in the mission in Paraguay; both the Indians and the country had been neglected before the turn of the century. He transferred to the Church Missionary Society in 1902 … few roads and long marches. He did get the college started in Kangwa (then German East Africa) and the missions were closed, the missionaries imprisoned. When he eventually returned to Canada, “TBR” was tireless in upgrading the Indians across Canada, travelling from coast to coast and to the Arctic Ocean to the Eskimo. Our native people have many good qualities. – Dorothy (Westgate) Leach

Dr. T.B.R. Westgate

Why is the dark side always the one that seems to get the publicity? There are so many good stories that could be told. … I had so many lovely worthwhile students. – Helena Kingston, former staff member at Pelican Lake IRS, near Sioux Lookout

My older brother (former IRS student Don Sands) will be flying up from Los Angeles (to the Shingwauk reunion). Unfortunately he will give you a very negative approach. He states that he was not allowed to speak Indian etc. and far into the night, but he forgets that we were products of such extreme poverty, we were more or less saved by the government sending us to Shingwauk. – Nellie (Sands) McDowell

Irene Hoff who attended Chapleau (also known as St. John’s IRS in Chapleau, Ontario) told me that she does not, nor does her family, nor do any of there friends know of any abuse having taken place at the residential schools they attended. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

Every day there was delicious fresh bread, porridge, peanut butter and lots of stew.  The food was always very good. … Many parents at the time though the school was a blessing. – Dora Cardinal, former IRS student

E. Ryerson Young Jr. was born at Norway House and as a child mingled with the Native children He spoke Cree and took part in Native games and was cared for by a Native girl whom his mother had saved from a terrible beating by a drunken husband. His Dad, Egerton Ryerson Young Sr. wrote several books that told of the legends and life of Canada’s Native people. – Rev. Bernard Lee

I really enjoyed my time at the school. Not only did I learn to work with other people, I also learned to respect them and respect myself. – former student at St. Paul’s Anglican IRS on the Blood Reserve / Kainai First Nation

My husband spent one year only at the United Church residential school at Norway House, Manitoba.  I spent two years teaching at the Anglican mission day school at the same place. This is where we met in the dim and distant past of sixty-five years ago. The residential school has a small farm connected to it, and since he had been raised on a farm, my husband was able to show the boys how to manage the cattle, horses and whatever animals there were. He knew a great deal about managing the land too, and how to plant and and grow vegetables. I think he enjoyed his year there as he liked the boys, and I am sure he was kind to them, even though he demanded discipline. – Margaretta Stevens, wife of an IRS employee

Our parents had never had schools before, but they wanted us to learn English. The parents (at St. Paul’s IRS on the Blood Reserve/Kainai First Nation) were involved in the school, with some parents living there as staff members. Senator Gladstone sent his kids there, and many of the students from St. Paul’s went on to university. – Rev. Stanley Cuthand

Senator James Gladstone, a staunch supporter of St. Paul’s Anglican IRS in southern Alberta

My own mother attended the residential school in Lebret from 1909 to 1916 and she loved it. The nuns taught her everything — how to sew, cook, read and write. – Rod Lorenz

The Rev’d John Bonnard told me of another Indian residential schools reunion – a reunion of 120 former staff and students of the La Tuque IRS (in the town of La Tuque, P.Q.). It took place c. 1998, and Matthew Coon Come (National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations 2000-2003) was one of the former students who attended.  There were positive remarks about the past, and Robert OtterEyes, a former student, was very much involved in organizing the event. He said he especially felt that the chapel services were important to the life of the school. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

We had two provincial basketball championships. Our teams travelled all over the world: Ireland, Mexico City, Europe. The kids loved to play, because on the basketball courts, they were equal or superior to whites. – Fr. Antonio Duhaime

I had many friends and relatives who attended residential schools. … Today those people are productive citizens: professionals, consultants and business people. They learned the ethic of hard work. – Rita Galloway

When visiting native families at their winter camps, sometimes being their guests in their one-room log shacks, they were considerate and welcoming hosts. They expected family prayers in the mornings before setting out to visit their traps or fish nets. – Rev. Bernard Lee

Julius had great praise for the Residential School where he learned different work skills, respect and discipline. – Memorial souvenir for former IRS student Dakota Julius English

Canon Bonnard spoke of student Romeo Saganash (Quebec’s first Indigenous M.P.) who was part of a Pee Wee hockey team that went to Switzerland in 1974. … It is interesting to note that Stephen Kakfwi, Premier of the Northwest Territories attended residential schools in Inuvik, Yellowknife and Fort Smith. – Bernice (Mason) Logan

The La Tuque IRS Pee Wee hockey team in 1967

The majority of us were products of extreme poverty. Take my brother — he came to Shingwauk at about 11 years old and had to start from Grade 1 or 2. Without the help of Mrs. Moran tutoring him, he would never have gone on to High School. – A former IRS student

There is no question about it.  The boarding school graduates of the late 60s and early 70s were the initial vanguard of the Inuit leadership. – Charlie Evalik

They (the Residential Schools) were there to help in any way they could — with nursing care whenever possible, and a warm, safe place for the children to live during the winter months — a place where they could begin the education that might eventually free them from a live of servitude to the Hudson Bay Company. – Nancy (Minchin) Thompson, in a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien

The education I got was first rate. – Jack Anawak, former IRS student

The schools weren’t terrible places at all. The idea that all children were forced into the schools is an exaggeration. – Rev. Stanley Cuthand

Always remember — while they are here, this is home for these children. – Canon A.E. Minchin, speaking to his school’s staff


By providing the above selection of memories and deeply-held beliefs, I hope I have successfully captured at least some of the complexity, humanity and warmth that can be found in an in-depth study of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, their students and their staff. While the IRS “concerto” certainly contained many dark passages, it is the entire concerto — just as it is when a music reviewer puts pen to paper — that one must evaluate and judge. This essay only presents a fraction of the beautiful passages that could have been captured and communicated to Canadians, had the TRC not turned its ear toward the negative, the hurtful, and the disappointing.


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