Dates of operation:
Managed by the Foreign Mission Society of the Presbyterian Church and after 1925, by the United Church of Canada.
At the east end of Round Lake, Saskatchewan, on the north side of the Qu’Appelle River and across the river from Ochapowace Indian Reserve No. 71. Round Lake is situated in the Qu’Appelle Valley, about 200 km east of Regina.
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.
—Lucy Affleck, a teacher at Round Lake IRS
In 1874, the Cree, Ojibway (also called Saulteaux), and Assiniboine peoples of what is now southern Saskatchewan negotiated Treaty No. 4 (also known as the Qu’Appelle Treaty) following the decline of game in their territories and increased Métis and white settlement in the region. The Aboriginal signatories insisted in the treaty on protection of their traditional hunting and fishing practices, assistance with farming, annuities, and provisions for education. The treaty promised “a school in the reserve allotted to each band as soon as they settle on said reserve and are prepared for a teacher.” Aboriginal people saw their children’s education as a means of acquiring new skills that would help them adjust to the changing economic and political order. However, the educational system the government eventually developed, in partnership with Christian churches, was not the one envisioned in the treaty.
Nearly a decade after Treaty No. 4 was signed, schools under the administration of one or another Christian denomination were established in the area. In the Crooked Lake Indian Agency, which covered the reserves around Fort Qu’Appelle, Presbyterian reverend Hugh McKay chose a site on the shores of Round Lake, just north of the Ochapowace Indian Reserve, to establish a mission and a small boarding school. The school, funded by both church and voluntary contributions, opened in January 1885 with 12 boarders. However, by spring of the same year it closed because of the North-West Rebellion.
McKay reopened at the end of that year and soon plans were made to enlarge the building. In 1886, with grants from the Women’s Foreign Mission Society and the Foreign Mission Society, additions were made to accommodate 50 children, and staff were hired. Backed by the chiefs of the Ochapowace, Kahkewistahaw, and Cowessess (Little Child) bands, the Presbyterians also applied to the government for support and in 1887 were provided with a per capita grant of $30 per annum for up to 50 students.
Government and church officials hoped that boarding schools would supplant the more expensive day schools. They also hoped that putting children in residence would remove them from the influences of their families and ensure regular attendance, which was “often seriously affected by cold weather, sun dances and long distance to travel.”
By the time of its official opening in January 1888, Round Lake IRS was filled to capacity, although attendance was irregular. The following year saw construction of another building that would house the schoolroom, the boys’ dormitory, and teachers’ rooms. The girls’ dormitory, principal’s quarters, matron’s room, kitchen, parlours, and dining room would remain in the original building. While most of the children in residence came from the communities of the Crooked Lake Agency, a number of Métis and even white children were also admitted. With the formal opening of Round Lake IRS, the day school at Crooked Lake was closed.
Despite some local support for the school, maintaining attendance was an ongoing struggle for administrators. In 1896, many parents from the Crooked Lake reserves petitioned to have government-financed enrolment, which in 1891 had been reduced to 20 students, increased. But others refused to send their children to residential school. In 1896, Principal McKay reported, “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.” 
Much to the annoyance of the local Indian Agent and other DIA officials, McKay took a flexible approach toward attendance. In addition to a month’s vacation in July and time at Christmas, he frequently granted leaves to children so they could help their parents during planting and haying, and he let them visit their homes whenever their parents came for them. The Indian Agent complained that on any given day as many as half the children were absent. “I go to a great deal of Trouble getting the Children in and Mr. McKay lets them go every time Parents come for them,” he wrote in 1917.
Yet, the lenient approach was not to last. A new principal, appointed in 1922, brought increased enforcement of attendance. In 1944, the RCMP even laid charges against a man for failing to send his son to the school.
Over the years, enrolment at Round Lake IRS increased, reaching 50 students in 1900 and 75, in 1921. By the 1930s principals were recruiting from more distant agencies such as Moose Mountain and Assiniboine. When the influx from other reserves began to shut out more local children, authorities decided simply to move the newcomers on to Brandon IRS, in Manitoba. “This would be placing no hardship either on the parents or children, as already they are away from their parents,” one official reasoned. Older children, especially those who wished to pursue high school courses, were also transferred to Brandon.
Like most Indian residential schools, Round Lake operated on the half-day system, with half the children attending classes in the morning and half in the afternoon. The half day not spent at schoolwork was dedicated to chores in the house and on the farm. The school’s aim was to train Aboriginal children to become farm labourers or to operate small farms of their own that would not compete with larger farms in the district. During McKay’s lengthy tenure as principal (1884–1922), boys were expected to work at least two hours doing manual labour and were paid ten cents an hour for additional work. “A boy who can drive a team may find lucrative employment on the farm, 10 cents an hour is allowed, and thus the older boys may prepare to go out on their own farms with a good outfit when 18 years of age,” McKay reported in 1911. Farmers in the vicinity would also hire boys as help.
Girls had the jobs of cooking, sewing, and cleaning, as well as some dairy work: “The older girls can manage a dairy and make butter and loaf bread; they are all taught to sew, knit, use the sewing machine, cut out and make dresses and garments, can make boys’ clothing, moccasins, also do patching, quilting, darning and fancy work.” Mary Ross, the principal’s wife, wrote the Department several times suggesting ways of improving the children’s learning and calling for an end to the half-day system. In 1937, she sought permission to keep several of the older girls in class morning and afternoon so they might finish their studies and attend high school. The DIA responded that while girls with special aptitude should be encouraged to study, “in the majority of cases, it is felt that it is preferable to devote the last year or two of their school life to work which will prepare them for looking after their homes.”
Classroom work for the junior classes consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic, drawing, English, and geography. For seniors, there was also spelling and dictation. The principal gave all the children religious instruction and lessons in singing. By the late 1920s, younger children were kept in school morning and afternoon, but the half-day system for seniors was never abandoned.
During Principal McKay’s tenure, the school stressed recreation. Students went skating and tobogganing in winter and in summer they played football and croquet, went boating, climbed the hills, and rode horses. In contrast, in the late 1920s and 1930s under Principal R.J. Ross, the Indian Agent called repeatedly for organized games that would teach the boys “self-reliance, manliness, fair-play and all the other qualities which prepare a boy for man-hood.” In 1922, while James Greer was temporary principal, the Indian Agent also found that the children were too often idle.
Round Lake IRS, situated on 22 acres owned by the Women’s Foreign Mission Society of the Presbyterian Church, operated a farm and garden, worked by the students, which provided the bulk of the school’s food. This acreage was supplemented by McKay’s own farm, 428 acres that belonged to his wife, Selma. Initially, the school kept about 20 acres in crops, as well as tending a large vegetable garden and caring for beef cattle, milch cows, pigs, and poultry.
In 1888, the school applied to the Department of Indian Affairs for additional farmland. The Indian Agent backed the plan, noting, “I know it is a hobby of Mr. MacKay’s to have the school self-supporting,” and the DIA approved. However, difficulties in negotiating an exchange with the landowner—Canadian Pacific Railway—delayed the deal. In the meantime, with 60 acres already under cultivation and only 28 students enrolled, McKay rented 80 acres from a neighbouring farm and expanded agricultural production further. In 1899, the transaction with the CPR was concluded and 261 acres were added by order-in-council to the school’s holdings to serve as pasture, cropland, and a woodlot.
In 1911, a deputation of First Nations people protested the amount of work expected of the boys. At the time, there were about 33 children in the school and 106 cattle and 19 horses on the farm. The DIA responded by asking administrators to reduce the stock to 30. “The work in connection with the caring for this stock falls, to a large extent, on the Indian boys and it is altogether too heavy for them,” J.D. McLean, of the DIA, wrote to the Foreign Mission Society.
But farming and caring for stock continued to be a major focus of Round Lake IRS. Following McKay’s retirement in 1922, the DIA bought his 428-acre farm and set it aside for the school’s use, and in 1932, Principal Ross purchased a further 160 acres for pasturage. By that time, the school had an award-winning herd of pure-bred Holsteins. Farm costs were high, but revenue from prizes and the sale of cattle and hides surpassed expenditures. Ross even turned over 10 percent of this revenue to the United Church, a practice the DIA’s auditor disapproved of but had no authority to change. In 1936, in addition to 85 cattle, the farm kept 24 milch cows, 19 pigs, and 19 horses, and had 350 acres under cultivation.
Another source of revenue was the school store, which traded with Aboriginal families, exchanging candies, tobacco, and clothing for wood, fruit, and cash. Students also made purchases at the store. According to one teacher, Ross sold oranges and apples to the children at double the price. In 1931, a local shopkeeper complained that Ross’s trade constituted unfair competition and that his prices were inflated. In response to these accusations, Ross admitted only that he bought fodder from First Nations people in exchange for food, clothing, or cash. He also claimed to offer them better prices than on the open market.
Conditions: Student Health and Welfare
In 1929, Lucy Affleck, a teacher at Round Lake IRS, wrote to the United Church Superintendent of Indian Missions about what she called the “true conditions” at the school. According to Affleck, students were often cold, the food was inadequate, the pigs were fed the milk, and there was little clean water. She also alleged that nine out of ten children had tuberculosis and accused Ross, who was principal then, and his wife of absorbing the salaries of staff positions the school had failed to fill. “The school exists for the profit of the staff, more than the profit of the students,” she wrote.
In reaction to this letter, Ross dismissed Affleck for disloyalty. However, in a letter to the DIA, she repeated her allegations: “To almost everything at Round Lake there are two sides, the side that goes in the report and that the inspectors see, and the side that exists from day to day.” Although the DIA agreed, based on its own reports, that Ross was a poor manager, the only measure taken was to urge him, again, to hire more and better qualified staff.
Of the deaths reported at Round Lake IRS, at least two were accidental. In 1914, 15-year-old Maud Tapewaywaypenasick drowned when a group of girls went alone to the lake to go swimming. One of the group, Ida Sagit, saved the lives of two of her companions. The police and coroner investigated.
Lack of supervision was apparent again when three boys ran away in January 1935 and the youngest, 13-year-old Percy Ochapowace, froze to death before reaching his home. The investigation that followed concluded that although the boys had announced that they were leaving, no inquiry or search was made for them. Also, Principal Ross was not even aware of the situation until Percy’s body was discovered four days later by a search party his family had organized. Although authorities considered the school’s lack of response “remiss,” no legal or administrative action was taken. Percy’s father hired a lawyer to push for a public inquest to determine any criminal negligence. “The Indians feel this situation keenly,” the lawyer wrote, “and pointed out to me that this was the fourth death since 1918 on the Crooked Lake Agency and [in] none of them…has there been any inquest whatsoever.” The request for an inquest, which eventually reached the Ministry of Justice, was denied.
The relationship between the long-term administrators of Round Lake IRS—Hugh McKay and R.J. Ross—and federal officials was a rocky one. DIA officials criticized the former for leniency regarding attendance and the latter for trying to manage everything himself instead of relying on qualified staff. Both men also had problems with their staff. Poor salaries and difficult conditions, as well as conflicting views on good practice, made staff hard to come by and difficult to keep. There were periods, such as during the world wars, when the situation became critical. In 1917, for example, McKay had to substitute for a teacher who had just enlisted, and his wife was left “in full charge of the school with no additional help except the girl students.” In 1929, the Indian Commissioner wrote with regard to the wages Ross paid his farm instructor, “He could not get an ordinary boy for this.”
However, racism and prejudice also coloured the views of some visiting officials. In 1928, a Russian laundress and a young Scottish stockman drew the commissioner’s disapproval. The same official had also complained in 1915 when the school hired an Aboriginal man to teach: “The Church is making a big mistake in allowing these children to be taught by an Indian boy, who has degenerated, and whose ideas are not exactly what should be instilled in Indian children.” By 1932, when the school hired one of its graduates as a substitute teacher, this attitude had changed. The inspector of the time wrote, “I feel that every consideration and help should be extended to him in order that his shortcomings may be overcome and that he may have every opportunity of becoming a useful teacher.”
Conditions: School Building
Early inspection reports for Round Lake IRS praised the degree of cleanliness and order maintained there. Soon, however, inspectors began to remark on the poor state of the school. By 1913, the building was dilapidated, the furniture broken, and even new flooring and wood was piled carelessly and warped. The farm, in the inspector’s opinion, “presented a poor example to Indians.” He gave this description of the boys’ dormitory, on the second floor of the classroom building:
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 inspector blamed the poor conditions on McKay’s mismanagement and recommended that he have nothing further to do with boarding schools. The Presbyterian Church, however, defended their principal, blaming instead the government’s failure to provide the necessary support and funds to improve the building. “We are not going to spend another dollar on buildings,” wrote Andrew Grant, of the Board of Home Missions. The board refused to replace McKay until a new building was constructed.
The Presbyterians never got a new building, but in 1919, the original residence was renovated and enlarged. And after a cyclone tore the roof off in the summer of 1922, the Department of Indian Affairs agreed to buy the school building and property. The following year the detached classroom burned down and that, too, was replaced. For several years following, reports on the state of the school were good.
However, conditions quickly degenerated, and once again officials declared that “everything about the place apparently is broken.” An inspection in 1930, for example, found that the girls’ dormitory was overcrowded, there was not enough airspace, the windows didn’t open, fire protection was poor, the children were not supervised during recreation, and the indoor toilets didn’t work. The Indian Commissioner wanted the school closed: “I think this is injurious to the health of the Indians; and, if this condition of affairs were made known to the public, I think there would be trouble. The outside toilets are disgusting.” However, the Church wanted neither to close Round Lake IRS nor replace the principal. They assured the Department that Ross would be leaving Indian work in a year or two. They also renewed their demand for a new building.
Concerns about the threat of fire at the school grew steadily in the 1940s, leading to the hire of a night watchman and other steps aimed at reducing the risk. Then, in 1949, a student set fire to the school barn. The school lost two wagons, its dairy equipment, various tools and harnesses, six calves, one hog, half of its wood supply, and its blacksmith shop. The incident reinforced the argument in favour of closing, and the DIA proposed a date: June 1950.
Still, the United Church was unwilling. They had just lost File Hills IRS, and the local public schools opposed integration. Day schools on the reserve were an alternative, but that would take time: “The children will have nowhere to go and under such circumstances I can see based again on experience that other religious bodies will entice the children into other schools.” The DIA conceded and rebuilt the barn, which caught fire again—this time by accident—in March 1950. Although the building survived, 21 cattle suffocated.
Meanwhile, conditions in other parts of the school had deteriorated. The electric plant stopped working in July 1949, so boarders and staff had to rely on oil lamps, increasing the risk of fire. An inspection in April 1950 found an uncovered pail of gasoline next to a stove. Principal Card was reported to be in a “disturbed mental condition” and was hospitalized. In May 1950, the provincial fire commissioner condemned the building.
Yet the school remained open until the end of the school year. In September, the DIA began a survey of the Crooked Lake Agency to decide on locations for the day schools that would replace Round Lake IRS. In the meantime, the children were relocated to various institutions, including Anglican and Roman Catholic residential schools and nearby public schools.
1. Lucy L. Affleck to Mr. Graham, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Nov. 15, 1929, RG10, vol. 6332, file 661-1, pt. 2, LAC.
4. A. McDonald, Indian Agent, to the Indian Commissioner, Regina, Mar. 3, 1887, and K. Vankoughnet, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (SGIA), to Sir John Macdonald, SGIA, May 6, 1887, both in RG10, vol. 6332, file 661-1, pt. 1, LAC.
21. T.G.Willis, auditor, to L.W. McCutcheon, Chief Treasury Officer, Indian Affairs, May 1, 1939, and George Dorey, Board of Home Missions, to Hoey, May 26, 1939, both in RG10, vol. 6334, file 661-24, pt. 1, LAC.
26. Affleck to Dr. Barner, Superintendent of Indian Missions, Oct. 3, 1929, Records of the Home Mission Department relating to work among the Aboriginal Peoples, accession 83.058C, box 114, file 11, United Church of Canada Archives (UCCA).
42. W.J.D. Kerley, [Superintendent of Indian Agencies], to B.F. Nearly, [Superintendent of Indian Education], telegram, May 12, 1949; Kerley to Indian Affairs, May 21, 1949; and George Dorey, Board of home Missions, to Indian Affairs, May 13, 1949, RG10, vol. 6333, file 661-5, pt. 6, LAC.