Reverend Mr. John Nelson: Missionary with an Impossible Mission

by Uta H. Fox

From 1893 to 1919, the Red Deer Industrial School, located a few kilometres west of Red Deer, was operated under the auspices of the Methodist Church of Canada. It was one of the many industrial schools in Canada funded by the federal government, but managed by religious denominations, thus epitomizing the symbiotic relationship between church and state established to realize the common goals of "Christianizing, Civilizing and Canadianizing" the Indians in the present-day prairie Provinces. Both the Methodist Church and the federal government sought to create a homogeneous society in the Canadian west based on Euro-Canadian values and culture. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries public policy-makers and the public believed that North American Indians were a "doomed race" on the road to extinction. With nomadism no longer a choice, sedentary lifestyles had to be instituted. Through education — regarded as a panacea — Indians were to acquire the skills to become self-sufficient members of the larger society.  A number of factors mitigated against the Red Deer attempt to implement the acculturadon process. These factors included the Methodist Church's declining interest in Indian mission work and their lack of resources, insufficient federal government funding, and parental resistance. Yet, despite these shortcomings, many students did obtain the fundamental skills necessary for survival.
 
Methodism evolved from the preaching of John Wesley. Aided by his brother Charles and their followers, John Wesley yearned to revive the fundamental aspects of religion in England, and to instill a "passion that came from an inward experience of Christ." In the mid-18th century they established enthusiastic spiritual and devotional societies (or class meetings) to study the Bible. These meetings supplemented the Anglican faith, which Wesley regarded as too formal and cold in practice. Wesley never envisioned Methodism or "Methodists" — so named because of their "orderly life of prayer, worship and service to the poor"— as a separate entity; instead, he intended the evangelicalism and revivalism to revitalize the Anglican Church.2 Only after his death in 1791 did the Methodists institute themselves as a separate denomination.
 
Methodism meant change. Sinners who had found salvation had to modify their lifestyles to strive for Christian perfection, and Methodists viewed education as one of the most important means of transformation. In fact, they had gained considerable experience operating an industrial school at the Mount Elgin Industrial School at Munceytown, Ontario, which opened in 1849. Since the federal government viewed education in the same light as the Methodist Church, Nicholas Flood Davin, a lawyer-journalist, was dispatched to visit Indian schools in United States. Davin recommended the adoption of industrial schools for the Canadian West. 3 Unlike day and boarding schools, industrial schools were located far from the reserves, thus separating students from family and ancestral ties. The curriculum consisted of a half day of academic study and a half-day of vocational study.
 
The first principal at Red Deer, Reverend Mr. John Nelson, remained in that position for approximately two years, from 1893 to 1895. Nelson was born in Florence, Ontario, on August 21 1848, and died at Woodbridge, Ontario on March  22, 1927. As a Methodist minister he worked in such areas as Pigeon Lake, Wolf Creek, and White Whale Lake in the Northwest Territories, from 1881 until his appointment to Red Deer in 1893. After Red Deer, Nelson was stationed in Manitoba and Ontario. While at Pigeon Lake and Wolf Creek, Nelson had worked among the Cree and Stoneys building a mission and school. In recommending Nelson to the Indian Department, Dr. Alexander Sutherland, General Secretary of the Missionary Society, stated that "... his lengthened [sic] service among the Cree of the North West has given him a knowledge of the Indian character and language that must be of very considerable service in the position in which he is now placed."4
 
Nelson's effort to fulfil the assimilation goals of both the Methodist Church and the federal government was hampered because Methodist resources were overextended by branching out in other directions. Following Treaties Six (1876) and Seven (1877) and the arrival of the first settlers, the emphasis of Methodist mission work shifted from First Peoples to the newcomers, both Canadian-born and new European immigrants. The opening of Asian missions later led to a new focus in Methodist work, so that by the turn of the century the Church spent more on its Chinese and Japanese work than on its prairie North American missions. As William Magney, a historian of Canadian Methodism has written, once the Methodist Church committed itself to overseas mission work, "interest in the Indian work ... somewhat subsided."5 These missions, in addition to the ones that the Methodist Church operated in Montreal and Toronto, were all under the direction of Alexander Sutherland.
 
The resources of the Methodist Church were overextended, but such factors as Biblical criticism, Darwinism and the emphasis on rational explanation that greatly influenced Methodist theology also contributed to a decline of enthusiasm for First Peoples evangelization. Methodism became a denomination that appealed to the urban middle-class and well-to-do farmers. The Church thus lost much of its evangelical heritage to the forces of secularization. Perhaps the demands on their resources and the diminishing intensity of Indian mission work help explain the friction between the Church and the federal government. The Methodists, ostensibly, disregarded procedures in filing and responding to reports. Historian William Brooks maintains that the conflict between the federal government and the Methodist Missionary Society was based on a "clash of rival bureaucracies" over issues of "administration and jurisdiction."
 
Another area of conflict between the Church and the government, and a cause of great frustration for Nelson, was the change in government funding for industrial education. Initially, Ottawa paid all the expenses for an industrial education, but costs escalated, and just as the Red Deer School was ready for occupancy, the federal government instituted a system of per-capita grants as the basis for funding. These grants ensured not only denominational competition but also competition with both day and boarding schools. Maximum attendance became not only a goal, but a necessity, as the churches had to secure a constant source of recruits. Clearly, with the implementation of per-capita grants industrial schools became more utilitarian and business oriented. The grant for the Red Deer School was set at $130 per student. From that amount the school was responsible for such items as food, clothing, repairs, salaries, medicine and transporting students. The Indian Department paid for the land and buildings, some repairs, and school supplies. Yet the Methodist Church considered itself financially disadvantaged, particularly since other denominations had received full funding until 1894, when the austerity measures were implemented. According to Hayter Reed, the Indian Commissioner, if the School was unable to survive on its grant, then the fault must be "... attributed to lack of proper management." The financial plight at the Methodist-operated schools in Canada so exasperated Dr. Sutherland that he reported to the government in 1897 that the Methodists were spending more than $40,000 per year over and above what they received from federal grants on their Indian Missions.
 
Lack of funding affected the size of the Red Deer institution. Originally, two buildings housing 80 students were to be erected at Red Deer, but that was reduced to one structure 64 feet by 65 feet with walls two feet thick throughout, a shingled roof, and a bell turret over the principal entrance, accommodating just 50 students. Not only did this building house the 50 male and female students together, but the principal, his family of six, and some of the staff all lived and worked under the same roof. In attempting to gain an additional building Sutherland pointed out: "With the limited accommodation it is next to impossible to secure the separation of the sexes which is so important for the character and efficiency of such an institution." A new building for the boys and a separate dwelling for the principal and his family were finally completed late in 1897, not because of the overcrowding at the Red Deer School but because the Methodist Church closed its day school on the Louis Bull reserve at Hobbema in June 1896 and moved the students to Red Deer.8
 
The government's penchant for economy extended to the daily operation of the school. No detail seemed too trivial for the attention of the Indian Department. To encourage thriftiness, the department, for instance, demanded that if the school ordered thick shawls instead of cloaks, the shawls were to last for four years. Straw hats should first be made at the school, and if that were not possible, only cheap ones could be purchased.9
 
In addition to funding shortages. Reverend Mr. John Nelson faced other problems with the school. For example, structural problems surfaced almost immediately after the building was completed in 1893. Nelson claimed that defective drainage from the boy's lavatory contaminated the well water, and that the school experienced difficulty maintaining an adequate supply of water from their well: "[The well was] pumped dry about three times a day. We have also two large tanks to catch water from the roof. Our supply being so small, water has to be drawn from the river in a tank, causing great labour and loss of time." Fire, through natural or unnatural causes, remained a constant danger. Indian Commissioner Reed recommended that the School have buckets and axes, wooden fire escapes and water-filled barrels located in convenient locations. When Reed was informed that the water supply was insufficient even to meet the daily needs of the school, he advised the school to haul its water from the nearby Red Deer River, ensuring that an abundant supply was kept on hand to combat a fire, if one should break out.
 
The new principal hired his wife to be the school matron. The initial teaching staff included Reverend Mr. R. B. Steinhauer, BA (son of Henry Steinhauer), and Sam Lougheed (brother of Senator James Lougheed), who worked as the carpenter. The farm instructor-blacksmith, the seamstress, the cook and a second teacher constituted the additional staff during the first year. Although the principal and the Missionary Board of the Methodist Church did the hiring, the government insisted on being informed about the character and family of the employees. The appointment of the farm instructor, Robert McLelland, received a full review. As the successful appointee was also adept in blacksmithing this appointment was applauded. However his large family — a wife, a 16-year-old son, and three young daughters — constituted a liability. Sutherland felt that McLelland's wife could assist in the school to compensate for the children's room and board. The Indian Department approved hiring the farm instructor-blacksmith but added that his wages "should not be more than $30 a month with rations for himself only or $40 without rations."11
 
As at most industrial schools — a direct result of per-capita grants from which salaries were paid — the wages at Red Deer were in no way comparable to what a teacher could earn in an urban school. Industrial school teachers only received half the average salary of an Alberta school teacher. Principal Nelson received $600 per year (with an additional $70 per year for rations), while the teachers received $300 per year. Sutherland deemed the salaries insulting, stating that those receiving them were branded " as inferior or incompetent men." Sutherland also found some of the salaries peculiar. As matron, Mrs. Nelson's wage was only $12 per month, while the cook received $20 per month. Both the Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Amedee Forget, and the Deputy Superintendent General, Hayter Reed, confirmed, however, that since Mrs. Nelson had children of her own " it could hardly be expected that she would receive the same renumeration for the portion of her time which she could devote to her duties as Matron...." On the other hand, the cook was hired with the express understanding her travelling expenses would be reimbursed if she remained for two years and gave "satisfaction."12 Perhaps the school had to offer travelling expense reimbursement as an incentive to maintain stability and preclude staff turn-over.
 
One salary differential instituted by the Indian Department caused problems at the Red Deer School. For some inexplicable reason the carpenter, Sam Lougheed, received $50 per month, a salary almost the same as principal Nelson. Great tension existed between the principal and the carpenter, perhaps due to the slight salary differential. After the first year at the school, Lougheed complained to Hayter Reed that Nelson would not make ice or milk available to him. He also objected to " the length of the daily service exacted of him." Sutherland acknowledged that at times:
 
[Principal Nelson] ... may not always have shown the best judgment ... [and] on some occasions he may have been too arbitrary alike with the pupils and the employees ... [but] his position has been a trying one... [since] some of the employees seem to have regarded themselves as virtually independent of the Principal, and have tried to make his position unpleasant ... even to secure his dismissal.... The most serious friction has been between the Principal and the carpenter, who is brother of Senator Lougheed, and the latter, as I would infer from letters of his which I have seen, has been specially bitter and active against Mr. Nelson.
 
Sutherland supported principal Nelson, and to resolve the conflict Lougheed was placed at the Battleford Industrial School. Nelson was also transferred that same year to the Norway House Indian mission, north of Lake Winnipeg.
 
 This was not the first difficulty John Nelson had had with instructors. In his previous position as missionary at Wolf Creek, he had experienced a particularly protracted personality conflict with Samuel B. Lucas, the farm instructor in the Hobbema area. Beginning in 1886, a disagreement over the location of a ration house resulted in a series of charges and counter charges filed by both Nelson and Lucas. Lucas claimed Nelson neglected sick natives, while Nelson accused Lucas of criminal neglect, foul language, drunkenness and incompetence. No charges were ever proven, but when hearings were finally completed in 1890, Lucas was transferred to the Sarcee Agency. His replacement at Hobbema was Daniel L. Clink. No doubt Nelson's transfer from the Red Deer School in 1895 was based on more than just the conflict with Sam Lougheed. Apparently he also lost control over at least one of his teachers. When Indian Agent Clink returned truant boys to the School he discovered that one of the teachers, Mr. Skinner, had struck a boy over the head with a stick. This same teacher shoved one girl onto the floor, and on a different occasion exchanged blows with another girl. Clink was horrified: "what I think should be done in this case would be to bring Skinner before a Magistrate and have him fined and dismissed at once; his actions in this and other cases would not be tolerated in a white school for a single day in any part of Canada."
Clink also noted that the Indians had " frequently complained to me about their children being improperly treated at this school." Corporal punishment was an alien method of imposing control on Indian students, and many Alberta Indians objected to it and other forms of physical punishment.15 Shortly after Clink's protests to the Department about Skinner's conduct, the rules were changed. In the future, the Department stipulated that Indian Agents should report only the results of inspections, and not undermine the authority of the school administration by intervening in the internal affairs of the school. Corporal punishment, on the other hand, should only be conducted by the principal and only "resorted to for very grave offences and as a deterrent example."
 
John Nelson did not experience any difficulties filling the school to capacity when it opened. Red Deer itself was geographically situated in an area with a strong Methodist presence, and children from reserves at Morley, Hobbema, White Whale Lake, Whitefish Lake, Goodfish Lake and Saddle Lake attended the School. Fifty-two pupils were admitted, which was two beyond the capacity of the building. Like Qu'Appelle and Battleford Industrial Schools, Red Deer accepted both girls and boys (St. Dunstan's Calgary Indian Industrial School only admitted boys). Students quickly became indoctrinated into Euro-Canadian life at the School by following a half-day program of work and study. Boys learned carpentry, farming, blacksmithing, and later, shoemaking. The older boys also built the fences, dug up stumps, and cleared away the brush. As Reverend Mr. Nelson reported: "... the building site was a veritable forest." In the first winter the boys had cut 8,000 rails, with each boy averaging over 200 per day. This last feat so impressed Nelson that he wrote: "To my mind at least, the too prevalent idea that Indians are naturally lazy has no proof in actual observation." The girls learned such household trades as laundry, cooking, and sewing. The principal declared: "... the parents are delighted to know their daughters are able to make good bread, and to see them dressed in neat and becoming clothing cut and made by the girls themselves." While Nelson felt that the students had made excellent progress in their studies, he was not as pleased with their progress in learning English. Since some of the staff were fluent in Cree, it was easier for both the staff and students to converse in it. So, to promote English, "... every evening each pupil is required to speak at least one English sentence of their own composition."
 
 Despite principal Nelson's optimism, two problems plagued this institution throughout its history: recruitment and desertions. The per-capita grant dictated that enrolment be maintained at the maximum number, yet this proved more and more difficult as some Methodist Indian parents had no desire to commit their children to this institution, but the use of corporal punishment and the high illness rate at the school also alienated many. As attendance was not yet mandatory, the school had to try and maintain a good rapport with parents and the Methodist Indian community. Nelson believed that if the parents could only observe first-hand what the institution had accomplished in just a few months, then he could " popularize the school on the Reserve." He received permission from the Indian Department to take a number of students to the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan District of the Methodist Church, held at the Cree community of Saddle Lake in May 1895. Reverend Mr. Nelson was so pleased with the results of the meeting he reported to the Department:
 
One evening was set apart for us. The pupils ... each gave an address in English and in Cree before a crowded house.
 
The people were delighted with what they saw and heard, the parents of the boys especially so.
 
To the people the contrast in appearance and deportment with those of the Reserve was most apparent. One man ... said he intended, if possible, to take his son from the school and put another in his place but now he wished to leave him at school as long as possible. As the result of our visit the revulsion of opinion is such that without solicitation the people offer to place their children in the Institution. Eight bright active healthy children arrive to-day.
 
However, using students as goodwill ambassadors did not stop desertions. According to the "Register of Admissions and Discharges" ("Register") for the Red Deer School, of the 52 students who were admitted in 1893, 12 (23 per cent) deserted.
 
From the beginning at the school, Methodist Indian parents actively responded to industrial education at Red Deer. The influential Cree Chief James Seenum (Pakan) of Saddle Lake asked for the return of his son in 1894, after the boy had spent only one year at the school. A few other parents also demanded and were granted the permanent return of their children. Two girls were discharged simply because they were needed at home. The Department of Indian Affairs regulations declared that only the Indian Commissioner could admit, discharge or grant students permission to leave the institution for any period of time. Yet time did not always permit the communication process to be completed between the parent's request and the Indian Commissioner's response from Regina. A group from the Louis Bull reserve at Hobbema, for instance, came to take their children home. Nelson, without official permission, let them proceed. He feared a refusal "would cause needless trouble." Although students were not given holidays, a leave of absence was occasionally extended to visit homes for a predetermined length of time. One girl was allowed to spend two weeks at home provided, "she must not be allowed to remain out longer than the term specified."
 
Originally, at the Battleford Industrial School, government policy insisted that students had to be between 14 and 16 years old so that, in effect, the industrial school functioned as a high school. At Red Deer, the majority of students who enrolled had received some education at other institutions, but the School, desperate for its per-capita grants, also accommodated students of all ages, with a few as young as five years old. Had the Red Deer School functioned as a high school, only 28 students of the first enrolment of 52 would have been eligible to attend. Health was one of the most tragic problems for these students at the school. Many of them were either tubercular on entering the school, or became so due to the confinement of their physical surroundings. Thus the industrial and boarding schools became breeding grounds for tuberculosis and other epidemics. The "Register" indicates that 17 (27 per cent) of the 62 students enrolled during the years that John Nelson was principal of the school (1893-95), died prematurely, at the school, immediately after leaving it, or within a decade of leaving it.
 
John Nelson was unable to realize the goals that both the Methodist Church and the state had dictated; neither the Church nor the state produced the resources to achieve the desired results. The Methodist Church was overextended financially and territorially; the government did not provide sufficient funding; and neither the church nor the state presented their educational program so that Indian parents would be supportive. Parental resistance also effectively undermined Nelson's ability to make the school palatable to the native community. Nonetheless, during Nelson's two years at the school, the students did learn life-skills and literacy, and, according to The Christian Guardian, he did win the approval of his students. It noted the farewell message that the students prepared for Reverend Mr. and Mrs. Nelson, which thanked them for being "very good to us and ... [teaching] us to be obedient and to be polite, like ladies and gentlemen, and how to speak English and how to work. But the most important thing that you taught us was how to live right...."