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Jean Marie River, N.W.T. Village, Rejected Residential School And Built Its Own

12/23/2015 10:37 EST | Updated 12/23/2016 05:12 EST
JEAN MARIE RIVER, N.W.T. — No, they said.

When government officials came to collect children from Jean Marie River for residential school, residents of the remote village in the Northwest Territories said they'd keep their kids at home, thanks very much. 

In what may have been unique among Canadian First Nations, they decided to build their own school. And now, as Canadians grapple with the legacy of residential schools, Jean Marie River is trying to commemorate the fact it doesn't have to.

"Our community saw that it needed to do something different," said Chief Gladys Norwegian. "It was democracy at its finest."

"He realized there's a dominant society out there, so he really believed we needed to know the ways of the white people for us to survive."

Jean Marie River, a hamlet in the Northwest Territories along the Mackenzie River, had about 70 people in 1950. That's about the same as now, but there were many more children back then.

That's what brought the government to town. Officials explained to parents that their kids would have to attend a residential school at Fort Simpson — a small distance on the map but a long journey by boat or dog team in those days.

Norwegian's father Louis, who was chief at the time, was torn.

"Dad really stressed on the importance of our beliefs and values," she recalled. "At the same time, (he) realized there's a dominant society out there, so he really believed we needed to know the ways of the white people for us to survive."

It was the mothers that made up his mind.

"When he heard the mothers crying, echoing through the community — especially in September when it's very dark and quiet — he himself cried," said Norwegian.

"He didn't like the sound of the mothers crying over their children. To me, that was the driving force."

"Almost anywhere in Canada you had a residential school, you had a day school."

The chief began talking to federal officials about Jean Marie River getting its own school.

But Ottawa was more interested in bringing children to schools than schools to children. The options were residential schools or day schools attached to a hostel where kids could grab a few days worth of lessons while their parents were in the area to trade.

"The model everywhere in the North after about 1950 (was) a federal day school," said Phillip Goldring, a researcher who has worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "Almost anywhere in Canada you had a residential school, you had a day school."

Not good enough, thought the chief. His people needed their own school.

It was a tall order, but residents still remember what the old chief used to say when faced with something tough: "Try, anyway."

He had a bargeload of logs shipped along the Mackenzie from Peace River, Alta. Local men pitched in and put up the new schoolhouse.

Norwegian made a deal with a couple of southern anthropologists named June Helm and Teresa Carterette who were looking for a northern community to study. Teach our kids, he said, and we'll cut your firewood, haul your water and co-operate with your research.

"They wanted a teacher there and June's husband found out about it," said Nancy Lurie, a retired academic and Helm's former colleague.

"I think it helped me to become comfortable with who I am. I didn't really need to explain to anybody what being an aboriginal person means. I was comfortable in my skin."

By the fall of 1951, Carterette was teaching, as often on the banks of the Mackenzie as inside a classroom. Although she only taught for the first year, the community picked up the ball.

People with a bit of western schooling helped out after she returned south. Books and school materials were shipped up from Alberta. Eventually, teachers came, too.

The school only taught the first six grades, but that was enough to ground kids before they went to Fort Simpson.

"It gave us a good, solid base as compared to people that went to residential schools that didn't have a nurturing mother, that didn't have a model of how to become a caring mother," Gladys Norwegian said.

"I think it helped me to become comfortable with who I am. I didn't really need to explain to anybody what being an aboriginal person means. I was comfortable in my skin."

"It was a small, one-room school," said Marilyn Hardisty, 61, who attended the school in the 1960s. "I just remember it with good memories."

But it was more than that, said Goldring. Jean Marie River may be the only example of a First Nation rejecting residential schools and educating its children itself.

"In my knowledge, it is unique."

"I just remember it with good memories."

The old school never closed. It educated dozens of children until it was replaced in the 1980s by the hamlet's new Louis Norwegian School.

The original building still stands. The community wants to mark its contribution by turning it into a museum and showplace for arts and crafts.

It'll take more than $400,000 to do that, considerably more than the original cost of the school. But you can almost hear Norwegian echoing her father's old motto.

"We're trying our best. It's almost like repeating the efforts that our forefathers did."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960

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