In the early 1920s, a review by Indian Affairs found that many native children in the far reaches of north-western Ontario had limited opportunities for schooling. Existing residential schools at Chapleau (Anglican) and at Kenora and Fort Francis (Roman Catholic, Presbyterian) were probably considered too distant and lacked sufficient capacity. As was the custom elsewhere in Canada, the government chose to partner with the Indian Schools Administration of MSCC in determining a location for a large residential school to be centrally located in the district. It would be built by the government and run by the church.

Sioux Lookout was selected and a site for the school was acquired 10 km west of town. The heavily forested property comprised 287 acres, bordered by Pelican Lake to the north (part of the Lac Seul waterway) and the main CNR transcontinental line to the south. Access to Sioux Lookout from other parts of the region was soon augmented with the arrival of the float plane and improvements to the Provincial highway system.

Pelican Lake (or Sioux Lookout) Indian Residential School opened in 1926 with a maximum enrolment of 135, soon increased to 142, and later to about 160 after the war. Land was quickly cleared near the school for farming operations, which involved the male students as part of their vocational training. Unlike most other schools, the Pelican Lake facility was not situated on or near an Indian reserve. Nor was there an Anglican Mission on the site. The school staff included a Registered Nurse who oversaw a fully equipped dispensary, which included two hospital rooms. These medical facilities were reduced after World War II, as space was needed for other uses. Serious medical cases were taken to doctors in town by the school’s swift power boat. Students contracting Tuberculosis were transferred to sanatoria at Fort William and Winnipeg.

Native children were drawn from reserves over a vast area covering 686,000 square kilometres, extending north from the CNR and from Cochrane in the east to Minaki, 1,125 km in the west. Many students came from the relatively close Lac Seul First Nation and from the widely scattered bands making up today’s Nishnawbe-Aski Nation. Three language groups were represented: Ojibway, Cree, and Swampy Cree. English was the language of instruction. Normally, children entered the school at age six but orphaned children of pre-school age were often taken in, by authority of the Indian Agent. Thus the school served as a foster home for some.

The Provincial curriculum was nominally adhered to with mandatory religious classes and attendance at chapel required. Students were exhorted to participate in church organizations such as the Girls Auxiliary and Church Boys League. As well, many children joined in secular activities such as Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and the Cadet Corps. In the early years, classes up to grade 8 were provided but after World War II, older students were kept on, as increasing opportunities for secondary education in local public schools was offered.

Milestones

  • 1926 Pelican Lake Indian Residential School opens.
  • 1951 Hockey team wins the Ontario School championship. In the preceding and following years, the school supported a serious hockey program for boys, nurturing many star players, especially students from Big Trout Lake.
  • 1950s-1960s School takes on role as a hostel as more students attend local public secondary and elementary schools in Sioux Lookout. Senior elementary classes in the residential school are phased out.
  • 1964 Sept. Enrolment totals 160, with 90 boarders attending town schools and 70 remaining at the residential school for Kindergarten and Grades 1 and 2. Almost one third of students in residence come from “fly-in” reserves.
  • 1965 Sept. Enrolment is 158, with 109 attending town schools, grades 2 and above. Students in grades 8 and 9 no longer stay in residence at Pelican Lake. Some former students, now entering high school, are boarded out in private homes in Sioux Lookout.
  • 1967 June 3 Forest fire comes close to the school, cutting off access by land. Intense smoke forces the school and adjacent radar base to be evacuated by water and helicopter to Sioux Lookout. All are safe and are allowed to return three days later.
  • 1969 Apr. 1 Ottawa takes over full management of school with most Anglican staff (non-teaching) staying on and becoming government employees.
  • Early 1970s Government and First Nations groups open more day schools near reserves; some native communities are relocated as part of the process. Residential school enrolment declines as remaining boarders continue to attend day school in Sioux Lookout until schooling is available in their home communities.
  • 1978 Student hostel at Pelican Lake closes, following completion of roads north and west of Sioux Lookout, affording students better access to new day schools in areas close to their homes.
  • 1979 Northern Nishnawbe Education Council is formed to operate education services for children from 24 bands in the Sioux Lookout Indian Agency. Many parents and ancestors of these students would have attended the Pelican Lake Residential School.

Compiled by General Synod Archives, September 23, 2008.