Lejac Residential School was part of the Canadian residential school system and one of the 130 boarding schools for First Nations children that operated in Canada between 1874 and 1996. Operated by the Roman Catholic Church under contract with the government of Canada, construction was completed on January 17, 1922, succeeding the school opened in 1917 in Fort Saint James. It was located in an otherwise undeveloped area on the shore of Fraser Lake about half-way between the town of Fraser Lake and the village of Fort Fraser, just off the railway line. The location was about 10 km from the Indian village of Stellako at the West end of the lake (within Stellat’en First Nation territory) and the village of Nadleh at the East end of the lake (within Nadleh Whut’en First Nation territory). Although there were a few lay employees, most of the staff belonged to the Catholic Church, the men Oblates of Mary Immaculate (The same order of my parish Our Lady of Grace in Hull Quebec), the women Sisters of the Child Jesus. The school was named after Father Jean-Marie Lejacq, an Oblate missionary who co-founded the mission at Fort Saint James in 1873.
Due to its location at the centre of Carrier country, the majority of students were Carrier, but Lejac also enrolled substantial numbers of students from neighbouring tribes, including the Sekani and Gitksan.
As with most other residential schools, former students have charged that they were physically and sexually abused. In 2003, the RCMP charged a former dormitory supervisor with 10 counts of indecent assault, three of gross indecency, two of buggery, and six counts of common assault, for incidents that allegedly took place at the Lejac School and at the Cariboo-St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School near Williams Lake, BC, between 1965 and 1973.
After the school closed in 1976 the land was transferred to the Nadleh Indian Band and the school buildings razed. What remains at the site are the cemetery and a memorial, the site of an annual pilgrimage in honor of Rose Prince, a Carrier girl who remained to live and work at the school whom some consider a candidate for sainthood.
As in many Canadian Indian Residential Schools (IRS), some children died while under the care of the school staff and administration. In one particularly tragic incident at the Lejac Residential School, four boys ran away on New Year’s Day in 1937 and were found dead, frozen on a lake shortly thereafter. Allen Willie (age 8), Andrew Paul (age 9), Maurice Justin (age 8), and Johnny Michael (age 9) had fled the school “without caps and lightly clad” and had covered six of the seven miles to Nadleh reserve before succumbing to the cold.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) is a missionary religious congregation in the Catholic Church. It was founded on January 25, 1816, by Saint Eugène de Mazenod, a French priest born in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France on August 1, 1782. The congregation was given recognition by Pope Leo XII on February 17, 1826. The congregation is composed of priests and brothers usually living in community; oblate means a person dedicated to God or God’s service. Their traditional salutation is Laudetur Iesus Christus (“Praised be Jesus Christ”), to which the response is Et Maria Immaculata (“And Mary Immaculate”). In 2016, there were 3,924 members.
OMI’s Canadian presence is currently administered in three geographic “provinces”: Notre-Dame-du-Cap (French), housed at Notre-Dame-du-Cap Basilica in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Lacombe (English), with offices in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and Dominican University College in Ottawa, Ontario, and Assumption (Polish), based in Toronto, Ontario. Lacombe also administers OMI’s missions to Kenya.
Establishment and Early Growth (1841-1883)
In 1841, at the request of Bishop Ignace Bourget, OMI sent its first missionaries to Canada. Arriving first at St-Hilaire in Montérégie, the Oblates then settled in Montreal and Bytown (Ottawa). The Oblates began in parish missions and later, moved to parishes in poor areas. The Oblates expanded to Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Moose Factory, and Fort Albany in James Bay. In 1845, at the request of the Bishop of Saint Boniface, Norbert Provencher, the Oblates went to Rivière-Rouge, Manitoba. This was the beginning of their missions of Western and Northern Canada.
In 1876, Canada established the Indian Act. The Act provided for indigenous education at day schools built on reserves.
Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, OMI of St. Albert advocated for indigenous children “to become civilized” through residential schools. In 1880 he wrote to Public Works Minister Hector-Louis Langevin, explaining that boarding schools were best to make indigenous children “forget the customs, habits & language of their ancestors”.
Residential School Administration (1884-1990)
In 1884, the Indian Act was amended to allow the Governor in Council to “make regulations [committing] children of Indian blood under the age of sixteen years, to such industrial school or boarding school, there to be kept, cared for and educated [until age] eighteen”. The Act was further amended via The Indian Advancement Act, 1884, establishing that the denomination of teachers at reserve schools was determined by the dominant religion already present, but with provision for minority denominations to have a separate school with permission of the Governor in Council. This allowed for churches to establish schools, not based on existing denominational presence, but to fulfill missionary work.
OMI became a primary operator of Canadian Indian residential schools, the OMI maintained at least 57 (41%) of 139 total schools funded by the Government of Canada, including Atlantic Canada’s only residential school, the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.
In 1887, missionary physician, Nicolas Coccola, arrived at the site of the Saint-Eugene Jesuit mission to the Kootenay of British Columbia and established a residential school (1890) and silver mine (1895).
To facilitate their mission, after his installation as Titular bishop of Ibora in 1890, and ordination as Bishop of Athabaska in 1891, Émile Grouard instructed Oblates to construct of a fleet of steamboats. The Western Canadian steamships of the Oblate Order of Mary Immaculate consisted of at least four boats, including St. Alphonse (built in 1894) and St. Charles (built in 1903). The boats also carried supplies for the North-West Mounted Police and Hudson’s Bay Company.
In 1920, the Indian Act was again amended, making it mandatory for all indigenous children between age seven and sixteen to attend an Indian Residential School. In 1933, principals of residential schools were conferred legal guardianship of the children attending the school via the Act.
Revelations, Reconciliation, and the Contemporary Ministry (1991-Present)
On March 15, 1991, after its National Meeting on Indian Residential Schools, the Catholic Church recognized that the “negative experiences in the Residential Schools cannot be considered in isolation from the root causes of the indignities and injustices suffered by aboriginal peoples.”This was followed by a statement from Oblate Conference of Canada President Douglas Crosby, on July 24, 1991, stating an apology on “certain aspects” of its ministry. Noting that the Oblate was soon to celebrate its 150th anniversary of ministering to Native peoples of Canada, Crosby wrote that the OMI recognized that they were a “key player” in the “implementation of cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious imperialism” that “threatened the cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions of native peoples”. Crosby also noted that sexual and physical abuse had occurred at the residential schools, and that the instances were “inexcusable, intolerable, and a betrayal of trust.” Further, Crosby noted that the OMI renewed its commitment to work with Native peoples in a renewed relationship seeking to “move past mistakes to a new level of respect and mutuality.”
Investigations into St. Anne’s Indian Residential School
St. Anne’s Indian Residential School was run by OMI and the Grey Nuns of the Cross through Canadian Government funding from 1902 to 1976. Investigations into allegations of abuse at St. Anne’s Residential School began in November 1992. Over seven years, Ontario Provincial Police interviewed approximately 700 survivors and witnesses, collecting approximately 900 statements about abuses at the school from 1941 to 1972.
Request for Government Financial Help
In July 2000, Superior of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Reverend Jean-Paul Isabelle requested government financial help with approximately 2,000 lawsuits related to its residential schools. Noting that Saskatchewan alone had 900 claims, with two settling for $100,000 CDN each, Isabelle feared that the order would go bankrupt in Canada.
Order of Canada Protest
In December 2008, representatives of Assumption OMI returned two Order of Canada medals to the office of the Governor General of Canada in protest over the honour being bestowed to Henry Morgentaler, noted Canadian abortion rights advocate. While the medals themselves were returned, the honours, given in 1979 to the late Reverend Father Michael J. Smith, OMI (1911-2002) for “his success in integrating war refugees into new surroundings and of his deep concern for the Polish community at large” and in 1971 to the Reverend Father Anthony Sylla, OMI for his “dedicated services for over sixty years as an Oblate missionary to immigrant settlers in Western Canada”, are still valid.
Father Alexis Joveneau
Beginning November 2017, specific accusations of physical, sexual, psychological, and financial abuse have were levied against Father Alexis Joveneau, a missionary of the order stationed at Unamenshipit and in remote Innu communities of Quebec along the St. Lawrence River shore from the 1950s until his death in 1992, were revealed as part of the Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Survivors, many children at the time of the events, noted their fear of speaking out against Joveneau, with one saying “I could not talk about it; he was like a god.” Joveneau was also noted for his part in the forced displacement of families from Pakuashipi to Unamenshipit in the 1960s, and deliberate removal of benefits for those that returned.
In March 2018, in a statement in response to the testimonies, the Oblate Fathers of the OMI noted they were “deeply concerned” following the testimonies and “fiercely hoped” that the members of the community would find peace. In March 2018 the order opened a hotline for abuse victims.
A participant in five National Film Board of Canada (NFB) documentaries from 1960 to 1985, including three by Québécois director Pierre Perrault, Joveneau was a public face of the OMI mission in Canada. The synopsis of the NFB films, including Attiuk (1960), featuring Joveneau have been edited to include note of his alleged abuse.
Class Action Suit by Survivors of Sexual Abuse
A class-action lawsuit had been launched against the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in March 2018. Despite the OMI initially seeking a settlement, as of 2021, the lawsuit had grown to include 190 Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons from Quebec. Allegations include Oblate attempts to “silence repeated sexual assaults it was well aware of” and include reference to Father Alexis Joveneau, Father Raynald Coture, and others.
In October 2018, a Radio Canada Enquête investigative report by Quebec journalist Anne Panasuk, unveiled accusations against ten additional Oblate missionaries, including Father Raynald Couture, who had served in Wemotaci, a Atikamekw community from 1981 to 1991. After sexual abuse accusations surfaced in the 1980s, Couture was relocated to France by the OMI, and in 2000, after eight Atikamekws filed a formal complaint of sexual assault, Couture was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Couture now admits his crimes, saying that he sought help from the church, but none came. The report included accusations that Oblate Archbisop of Labrador City-Schefferville Peter Sutton was aware of the accusations in 1974. In response to the Enquête report, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City thanked Anne Panasuk, stating “The Church must never again be silent.”
Unmarked Graves of 215 Children Found at Kamloops Indian Residential School
Starting in 1893 (three years after its inception) until 1977, the Canadian government charged the Oblates of Mary Immaculate with running the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia on the traditional territory of the Secwépemcúl’ecw (Secwepemc). Hundreds of Secwépemcúl’ecw children attended the school, many forcibly removed from their homes following the promulgation of mandatory attendance laws in the 1920s. Peaking at 500 students the 1950s, it became Canada’s largest residential school. As a matter of policy, the administration forbade children who attended the school from speaking their native Secwepemctsin language or practicing their traditional spirituality.
In May 2021, with the assistance of a ground-penetrating radar specialist, indigenous investigators discovered the buried remains of 215 children on the site of the school. Tk’emlups te Secwépemcúl’ecw First Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir said that the deaths were believed to be undocumented, and that work was underway to determine if the Royal British Columbia Museum holds related records. Because the scanning task is ongoing, she said she expects more discoveries to be made.
In a statement released by the First Nations Health Authority, CEO Richard Jock said, “That this situation exists is sadly not a surprise and illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and communities.” Premier of British Columbia John Horgan said he was “horrified and heartbroken” at the discovery, and that he supported further efforts to bring to “light the full extent of this loss.” Federal Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller also offered his support. Highlighting the national importance of the discovery, flags were lowered in communities across Canada. In Halifax, Mayor Mike Savage noted the flag lowering was “to honour the children found in Kamloops and all others who lost their lives to the residential schools system.”
On May 30, 2021, Father Ken Thorson of Lancome OMI issued a media release acknowledging discovery of the children’s remains:
Statement For Media Release, May 30, 2021 ‐ Regarding news from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation (Kamloops Indian Band) of the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
On behalf of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, I wish to express my heartfelt sadness and sincere regret for the deep pain and distress the discovery of the remains of children buried on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School brings to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, and other affected indigenous communities, especially family members of the deceased. I appreciate the sensitive and respectful way in which this difficult work is being carried out. This heart‐breaking discovery brings the tragedy of the residential school system into the light once again and demands that we continue to confront its legacy.
The Missionary Oblates were administrators and teachers at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Through our own ongoing reflection, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we are growing into a deepening awareness of the damage caused to indigenous peoples, the enduring harm caused by colonization and the part our religious order played in it through the residential school system.
This growing awareness leads us to an increased desire to listen deeply and learn from indigenous communities where Oblates continue to live and minister. The Oblates remain committed to humbly participating in ongoing efforts towards reconciliation and healing for our role in this painful part of our shared history.
~ Father Ken Thorson, Provincial, OMI Lacombe Canada
The Sisters of the Child Jesus (French: Soeurs de l’Enfant-Jésus) are Religious Sisters founded in 1676 in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, by Anne-Marie Martel (1644–1673) to care for those in need. Divided among various independent religious congregations following the same spirit and tradition, they serve around the world. Since 1903 they have used the postnominal initials of R.E.J.
In 1896 the congregation accepted the request of Pierre-Paul Durieu, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the first Bishop of New Westminster in British Columbia, to work with the people of the First Nations. Four Sisters of the congregation, under the leadership of Mother Aimée, left Le Puy and traveled to Canada, arriving in Williams Lake. From this time the congregation has taught in various schools and built schools and foundations across western Canada, eventually serving in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lejac_Residential_School / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisters_of_the_Child_Jesus / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missionary_Oblates_of_Mary_Immaculate / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shubenacadie_Indian_Residential_School
The Shubenacadie Indian Residential School was part of the Canadian Indian residential school system and was located in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. It was the only one in Atlantic Canada and children from across the region were placed in the institution. The schools were funded through Indian Affairs and the Catholic Church. The institution was like an orphanage, which were the forerunners of contemporary child protection and welfare services. The first children arrived on February 5, 1930 and the institution was closed after 37 years on June 22, 1967. Approximately 10% of Mi’kmaq children lived at the institution. (Approximately 30% of native children were placed in residential schools nationally.) Over 1000 children are estimated to have been placed in the institution over 37 years.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada determined that the residential school system was “an education system in name only” and determined that residential schools were a central tool of Canada’s Aboriginal policy, amounting to tools of “cultural genocide.”
Those who were placed in the institution during the first twenty years have spoken of the traumatic experiences they had in the institution. Most agree that there were serious problems with the institution: poor living conditions, corporal punishment, over-crowding, lack of academic education, forced farm labour, hunger, racist curriculum, and children punished for speaking the Mi’kmaq language. One survivor of the institution, William Henry, reported that “Within those [first] few days, you had to learn, because otherwise you’re gonna get your head knocked off. Anyway, you learned everything. You learned to obey. And one of the rules that you didn’t break, you obey, and you were scared, you were very scared.
Numerous Mi’kmaq who attended the school reported the staff using severe corporal punishment during the first two decades of the institutions’ existence. The first principal allegedly knocked out a fifteen-year-old in front of a class by punching him in the face. Many Mi’kmaq who attended the institution reported being sexually abused by staff. One Mi’kmaq person alleged that his sister died within 24 hours of being assaulted by staff. In June 1934, 19 boys were severely beaten by the principal for stealing, which was supported by the Halifax Chronicle. There were also allegations of locking children in rooms for days at a time.
Chief Dan Francis (1931) protested to Indian Affairs of the conditions at the institution after its first year of operation: “I thought that the school was built for Indian children to learn to read and write, Not for slaves and prisoners like a jail… one Indian boy of this reserve was so beaten by Father Mackey he was laid out for seven days.” In 1936, Indian Agent R. H. Butts of Sydney Mines wrote to Indian affairs to complain about the cruelty at the school. Survivor William Herney reported he was strapped and had his mouth washed out with soap for speaking his Mi’kmaw language. The violence is alleged to have continued until the second principal arrived at the school in 1944.
Note: All photos, who are not personal, are from wikipedia.org in public domain
Archb. Eric Michel