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Long history behind Round Lake Residential School

The school started off as a one-room log cabin on the Qu’Appelle River
round lake residential school
The classroom building at Round Lake Residential School.

The Round Lake Indian Residential School was first opened in 1884 and was managed by the Foreign Mission Society of the Presbyterian Church until 1925 when the Round Lake IRS became operated by the United Church of Canada. The United Church of Canada operated the school from 1926 until its closure in 1950.

The school was located at the east end of Round Lake and on the north side of the Qu’Appelle River on Treaty No. 4 territory. The school was funded by both the church and the federal government.

From 1885 to 1921 the Round Lake IRS was overseen by Reverend Hugh McKay who acted as principal, although the school had to briefly close due to the Northwest Resistance of 1885.

While the school started off as a one-room log cabin on the Qu’Appelle River it expanded to a log cabin school capable of accomodating 50 students in 1888. The school applied for funding from the government and reportedly saw a number of Metis and white students admitted as well.

In 1888, the Round Lake IRS reportedly was filled to capacity, though it was noted that attendance was irregular. In 1889 an additional building was constructed that would house the boys’ dormitory, the teacher’s rooms, and the schoolroom.

The girl’s dormitory, principal’s room, matron’s room kitchen, parlours, and dining room remained in the original building.

With the opening of the Round Lake Residential School, the day school located at Crooked Lake was closed.

The Round Lake Residential School operated on a half-day system where half of the children attended classes in the morning and half in the afternoon. The half-day that was not spent in class was dedicated to chores in the house and around the farm.

The Round Lake Residential School's goal was to train Aboriginal children to work as farm labourers or operate small farms on their own that would not be able to compete with larger farms in the district.

From 1884 to 1922, boys were expected to do at least two hours of manual labour each day and were paid 10 cents an hour for additional work.

Girls were required to cook, sew, clean, and do some dairy work with the cows located on the farm.

Classwork included reading, writing, arithmetic, drawing, English, and geography for the junior classes. Seniors also studied spelling and dictation.

The principal also gave religious instruction.

In the 1920s, the school moved away from the half-day system for younger students but kept senior students on half-days.

The school was situated on 22 acres owned by the Women’s Foreign Mission Society of the Presbyterian Church. The students operated both a farm and garden on the property which provided a majority of the student’s food. The 22 acres were supplemented by McKay’s farm of 428 acres that belonged to his wife.

The school kept around 20 acres in crops as well as attending a large vegetable garden and caring for cattle for both beef and milk, pigs, and chickens.

But in 1911 a deputation of First Nations claimed that the amount of work expected of the students was too much. At the time there were around 33 students in the school that tended to the 106 cattle and 19 horses on the farm.

Following the deputation, the Department of Indian Affairs requested the school reduce the stock to 30.

The self-sustaining nature of the school helped cover costs, but another source of revenue came from the school store that traded with Aboriginal families. The store exchanged candies, tobacco, and clothing in exchange for wood, fruit, and cash.

Students were also permitted to make purchases at the store with the money made through labour.

Teacher speaks out against new leadership (1929)

Maintaining attendance was an ongoing struggle at the Round Lake IRS. Some parents from the Crooked Lake reserves petitioned to have government-financed enrolment at the school, but other parents refused to send their children to the residential school.

In 1896, Principal McKay said:

“The Indians of Shesheep’s Band, and also in Ochapowace’s Bands, are attached to their old ways, and set their faces very much against anything that looks like the civilization of the white man. In each of these bands there are still a good number of children who do not attend school.”

Despite this, Principal McKay was said to take a flexible approach towards attendance, providing a month’s vacation for students in July and additional time at Christmas. McKay was reported to also grant children leaves so they could help their parents during planting season and harvest season.

McKay’s flexible approach to attendance prompted the local Indian Agent, E. Taylor, to report “I go to a great deal of trouble getting the children in and Mr. McKay lets them go every time Parents come for them,” in his Agent’s Report regarding Round Lake Boarding School on Reserve for May, 1917.

But in 1922 a new principal was appointed that brought stricter enforcement of attendance, which went so far as charges being laid against a man for failing to send his son to the school in 1944.

R. J. Ross received harsh criticism from staff, including a strongly worded letter from Lucy Affleck in 1929 who was teaching at the time. Affleck criticized the conditions the students lived in as well as their treatment in a letter to the superintendent of Indian missions for the United Church.

Conditions highlighted included the bathroom which only used a pail that had been in use for a year.

Following her letter to the superintendent of Indian missions, Ross was fired by Principal Ross who wrote “the church demands the immediate dismissal of any one disloyal to the staff,” and “you may take either a morning or afternoon train.”

Following her termination, Affleck sent another letter to the superintendent of Indian missions for the United Church, detailing additional issues with the school.

In her letter, Affleck said “the children lack completely the mothering that only one could give them who lived close enough to know their individual dispositions. The discipline they are receiving is not the result of training or the rule of love.”

Affleck also highlighted the lack of food, noting that each child would receive around three tablespoons of porridge each day, and only one table of students, out of 12, would receive glasses of milk in the morning as the rest would go to the pigs kept on the property.

Affleck’s criticisms were also directed towards the Matron of the school, Mrs. Ross, wife of Principal Ross.

“Breakfast always means porridge, bread, lard, and tea, nothing else. When I asked the cook why so little porridge for each child (about 3 tbsps.) she said, ‘The children don’t like it and besides the pot isn’t big enough to make more.’ I do not wonder they do not like it. It is always cold when they get it and badly made.”

“In all my 18 years experience as a teacher, I never had in my school a dirtier, more ill-clad, or more likable, class of little folk.”

Afflick also said that the Round Lake IRS was plagued by tuberculosis and the students were ill-dressed for the chilly fall months.

It wasn’t just Afflick that criticized Ross.

Ross also received criticism from a local shopkeeper in 1931 when it was found that Principal Ross was selling oranges and apples to the students through the school store at double the cost.

The shopkeeper claimed that Ross’s trade constituted unfair competition and that the prices were inflated but Ross claimed to offer prices better than the open market at the school store.

A boy’s death sparked outrage in father (1935)

Two deaths were reported at the Round Lake Residential School.

One was reported to be an accident while the other is said to be the cause of Principal Ross’s lack of supervision on students, which sparked outrage.

In 1914, Maud Tapewaywaypenasick drowned when a group of girls went alone to the lake to go swimming. The 15-year-old drowned while Ida Sagit, another girl in the group, saved the lives of two of her companions who also went swimming at the lake.

On January 13, 1935, three boys, Percy Ochapowace, Glen Gaddie, and Alec Wasacase, all ran away from the school in -32 degree weather. Shortly after the trio left the school a blizzard settled in. It is reported that after walking a distance the boys made a fire to warm themselves before separating. 

Wasacase and Gaddie went west while 15-year-old Ochapowace went south towards his home.

Reportedly Gaddie and Wasacase travelled roughly one and a half kilometres before growing tired and building fire. The two rested before going to the nearby house of Alex Belanger and resting for the night, leaving for home the next morning.

Three days after the trio had left the school, Belanger came across Ochapowace’s brother, Daniel. Belanger asked if he had seen his brother but was told by the brother that he through Ochapowace was still at the school.

The brother then went from house to house to look for Ochapowace but could not find him, eventually reporting the incident to the RCMP the following morning.

The RCMP informed the local Indian agent of the situation but found that the agent was unaware that the boys had run away, having not been informed of their absence by Principal Ross. 

While the search was underway for Ochapowace, the RCMP and Indian agent went to the Round Lake IRS to interview Principal Ross who claimed he had not realized the boys were missing until the evening of January 13, several hours after they had left.

“I did not think it worth while sending after them, as they would have nearly reached home by this time. It is not customary to follow boys, 12, 13, or 14 years of age after they get a 2 or 3 hour start on us, from

the school. I did not get in touch with anyone outside of the school to let them know the boys had left, but I wrote a letter to Mr. Ostrander, on 16th Jan. informing him that these three boys had run away from the school. The letter was posted in Stockholm on Jan. 17th, 1935. I did not know that the boy had not arrived home safely until I received the telephone call from Mr. Ostrander this morning,” Ross said.

Ochapowace’s frozen body was found later that night around two and a half kilometres from where he had split from the other two wearing only a sweater, overalls, socks, and rubber boots.

After the body was examined it was concluded that the boy’s death was due to exposure, and because of this, no inquest was necessary.

In his report to Indian Affairs, the Indian agent stated:

“In view of the extremely cold weather and bad roads the Revd. Principal would have been well advised to have an immediate search made as the boys [sic] tracks could have been followed in the snow but apparently as the boys ranged from 13 to 15 years of age he thought they would reach their homes in safety.

“… As would be expected the father of the deceased as well as other Indians who have children in this school are considerably upset and are inclined to place the blame on the Revd. Principal for failing to have the boys immediately followed when it was found that they were missing and also for not taking steps to inform them and myself more promptly. When I asked the Revd. Principal why he had not acted more promptly he informed me that he did not anticipate any serious consequences owing to the age of the boys as he thought they would have no difficulty in reaching their homes.”

The agent was informed by Indian Affairs that “the Principal should have instituted an immediate search when it was discovered that the boys had left the school, more especially so in view of weather conditions. He should have informed the parents and yourself and instituted a search at once. The death of the boy, under the circumstances, is much regretted, and I would request that you convey to the parents the Department’s sympathy for their loss.”

The father of Percy Ochapowace, Walter Ochapowace, hired a lawyer to request reconsideration on recommendations not to hold an inquest but was denied.

In frustration with the decision, the lawyer hired by the father said “the mere fact that it would appear that the officials of the Round Lake school knew nothing about the death of this boy until the Thursday following would indicate a laxity and culpability for which they should be held responsible.”

The lawyer then wrote to the federal minister of justice, Hugh Guthrie, requesting an appointment of a commission of inquiry under the Enquiries Act. In his request, the lawyer stated “there must be extreme laxity and carelessness either in the interpretation of such rules as there may be or in the rules themselves that it does seem to be inhuman that if it be true, no enquiry or search was made for the boy for three or four days in extreme weather.”

Once again the request was denied and no investigation was held into the death of Percy Ochapowace.

Conditions and closure

The school began to deteriorate overtime. Inspectors began to remark on the poor state of the building as years went on.

On Febuary 20, 1914 the building was considered to be dilapidated in a report made by an inspector.

“The walls and ceilings are dirty and the floor worn out in places. The paint which was on the floor at one time has about disappeared. The beds are old iron ones with the enamel worn off. In almost every case, the springs are badly broken and many of them are for beds of a different make, so that the frames are projecting over the sides of the beds. Each is supplied for four or five patchwork quilts, beneath which the boys sleep. In the centre of the room is a small old sheet iron stove (a most dangerous affair), which supplies the heat for the whole room. The whole dormitory presents a very unkempt and dismal appearance, in fact it is not fit for habitation, and as for the beds and mattresses, they should be destroyed. I noticed there were not sufficient beds in the dormitory and on making enquiries learned that in most cases two boys sleep in each single bed.”

The Presbyterian Church defunded McKay, who was the principal at the time, and blamed the government for their failure to provide the necessary support to improve the building.

The building was renovated in 1919 and had to undergo repairs in 1922 when the roof was destroyed in a tornado.

That same year the Department of Indian Affairs bought the building and property and the following years received good reports on the state of the school.

But once again conditions rapidly deteriorated, this time under Principal Ross. One inspector noted that “everything about this place is apparently broken,” and an inspection in 1930 found the building to be overcrowded. In addition to the overcrowding, the windows didn’t open and the fire protection was considered to be poor.

While the Indian Commission called for the school to be closed, the United Church refused to close the doors to the school and demanded a new building.

Concerns about fire safety in the building continued to grow to the point where a night watchman was hired to reduce the risk of fire. These concerns only grew in 1949 when a student set fire to the school barn, causing the school to lose two wagons, dairy equipment, a variety of tools, six calves, one hog, and half of its wood supply.

This incident only furthered the Department of Indian Affairs’ demand to close the school down, proposing to have it closed by June of 1950.

Like before, the United Church wanted the school to remain open. The Church claimed that local public schools opposed integration and the creation of day schools on reserves would take time.

The Department of Indian Affairs agreed and rebuilt the barn, which caught fire again in March of 1950. Though the building survived, cattle were lost.

Conditions continued to deteriorate in the school, now under the guidance of Principal Card. An inspection in April of 1950 found Principal Card to be in a “disturbed mental condition,” and had him hospitalized. Then in May of 1950, the provincial fire commissioner condemned the building.

Even being condemned, the school remained open for the remainder of the school year.

The Department of Indian Affairs began to look into the creation of day schools, sending the remaining students off to various areas including Anglican and Roman Catholic residential schools and nearby public schools.