LAC LA BICHE - The executive director at the Lac La Biche Mission Historical Site says there is an “open nerve” relating to the site that once housed one of Alberta’s two-dozen residential schools.
From 1893 to 1898, the Lac La Biche Mission, at the time known as Notre Dame des Victoires, was designated as an Indian Residential School. The site, located on the shores of Lac La Biche Lake about 15 kilometres away from the current hamlet of Lac La Biche, has housed a rectory, church convent, schoolhouse and farm buildings. After the residential school stopped operating, a conventional school, attended by area students of all cultural backgrounds continued to be run by priests and nuns of the Catholic Church. That school operated until the late 1970s.
Residential school students who left the Mission in 1898 were moved to a residential school built in Saddle Lake and then eventually to the Blue Quills residential school, which is now an Indigenous-run and operated college near St. Paul.
The Misson, which pre dates Canadian Confederation, is now a national and provincial historic site.
In light of the disturbing discovery that uncovered the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the property of former Roman Catholic residential school, Louis Poulin-Markle, the Mission’s new site administrator, said that the non-for-profit historic site is in contact with the Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Manitoba and is committed to transparency and research of the sites past.
He says the “dark” period in the Mission’s history is part of an overall history, that — although painful — should to be remembered.
“There is an open nerve and to a lot of people this place represents a lot of that darkness,” said Poulin-Markle. “When we don't have those people to tell us directly what happened, we are going to need places like this building, with plaques outside of them that say exactly what happened — so we can have something to point to, to show people”
As a historic site, the Lac La Biche Mission is no longer directly with the Catholic Clergy or the school systems that operated over the last Century, but members of the historic society associated to the site and other supporters are actively trying to makes sense of the fragments of history left behind.
Residential school display featured
This summer, when provincial health measures loosen and the site is reopened, those who visit the convent can take in a display highlighting the Mission’s time as residential school.
“As a former Residential School, we are committed to the ongoing process of atoning with our share of that legacy through research and interpretation,” reads a statement posted on the Mission’s social media page announcing the new installation.
“One of the first things you can do is address it directly and explain exactly what happened,” said Poulin-Markle. “There's so much work to be done before the community can really feel that this is a place where reconciliation can take place.”
Looking beneath the surface
Currently, the Mission is in the midst internal discussions around having the 45-acre site examined by forensic anthropologists. Public pressure from across the nation is calling for all former residential school sites to be explored in the wake of the discoveries in Kamloops.
“We're still reviewing this, because it goes back to the 1850s, in terms of understanding how to even start digging,” Poulin-Markle said, explaining that radar or some other variation of excavation around the foundation of the buildings will take a lot of work because the structural history of the site has evolved so much and there have been several different buildings that have burned down or have been rebuilt or moved over the years.
Complicating matters further, is the overlapping ties between settlers, Métis and Cree peoples alongside historic events that impacted the entire area.
“We do know that due to smallpox epidemics, as well as the Spanish flu, at times, they were not able to dig graves because either the ground was still frozen, or they just didn't have the labor or the manpower,” says Poulin-Markle. “But the overall context and the real experience of those people's stories, so much of it remains unknown. Maybe with this kind of work, taking another look at what's underneath, we'll start to illuminate more of that — it's an ongoing process.”
Dealing with a site that has such a long and interconnected history, he adds: “There is such a variety of realities there, that it becomes so hard to untangle.”
According to the few surviving documents that have been archived by the Lac La Biche Museum, before the Mission was identified as a residential school it operated from 1862 as a boarding school that also permitted the attendance of day students who lived close enough to travel back and forth between their homes and the school.
However, times were difficult for the nuns and clergy who maintained the school and surrounding land. According records available at the museum, the nuns often struggled to feed themselves and the children who boarded with them, with the food they were able to produce from their own small summer harvests, relying predominately on fish during the winter months.
A letter written by Sister Youville in 1875 highlights the complicated past of assimilation through education, “We currently have fourteen poor little girls and one orphan, as well as five boarders and someday 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!”
In order to receive more funding for the operation of the school, the nuns applied for status as an Indian residential school as soon as the program was offered in 1893. This change in designation slightly complicated the way the school had been running.
The school was not compensated by the federal government for students who lived off-site or were Francophone or Métis, which surviving attendance records would indicate made up the bulk of the school's enrolment. “While Métis students were placed in residential schools at times, federal funding was not provided for them,” the museums archives read.
During those five years there was pressure to increase Indigenous enrolment. In 1897 Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin wrote a letter to the Indian Commissioner saying, “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.”
However, in 1896 the old wooden structure run by Grey Nuns was inspected by an Indian agent deeming the dilapidated building unfit for occupation. At this point it was agreed that new residential school would be built in Saddle Lake. In 1898, the Notre Dame des Victoires residential school, formerly an industrial boarding school, was decommissioned and reestablished over a 100 kms away in Saddle Lake Cree Nation.
More of the Mission’s history and ties to Canada’s Indian residential schools can be found on the Lac La Biche Mission’s website and associated links, or in person when the facility reopens later this year.
Provincial and federal government leaders have pledged to find funding for the exploration of residential school sites across Canada. Details on that plan have yet to be finalized.
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