This page gives an overview of Mennonite involvement with Indigenous children in residential, day, private, band and public schools in Canada from 1943-1999.
In order to facilitate further research, sharing of stories and healing, the outline below illustrates the varied ways in which many different Mennonite groups, organizations and individuals were involved. Collections of two organizations that ran residential schools have been identified from our files, and are listed below. Also noteworthy are the reports, reflections and news stories on this topic found in national Mennonite newspapers. Further research into other Mennonite-run activities with Indigenous children, such as camps and vacation Bible schools, is needed. Additions and corrections to this list are welcome.
In the 1940s the Mennonite Brethren missions organization in British Columbia, with government encouragement, promoted teaching positions on reserves and at public schools in the Skeena River area. This resulted in Mennonite teachers working in communities such as Hartley Bay, Kitimat, Port Essington, Port Edward, Kincolith and Kispiox through at least the 1950s.
Mennonite Central Committee British Columbia began to place Voluntary Service workers on the Tsulquate Reserve in 1974. Voluntary Service teachers taught in the reserve school beginning in 1979. Mennonite Central Committee concluded its official involvement with the Gwa'sala-Nakwaxda'xw band in 1999. As of 1999, the first MCC teacher at the school had remained on as vice-principal.
The Alberta-Saskatchewan Mennonite Conference, the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (Mennonite Church) and Mennonite Central Committee collaborated to place teams ("units") of voluntary service workers, some of them teachers, in northern Alberta communities from 1955-1970. Mennonite teachers taught in public schools in communities with significant Indigenous populations including Calling Lake, Marlboro and Imperial Mills. At the request of community members, voluntary service workers helped establish day schools at Sandy Lake and Chipewayan Lakes which became part of the newly-created Northland School Division in 1960. Teachers and dormitory staff for a public school at Anzac from 1962-1966 were also provided by this group. The Anzac school had a majority Metis population, as well as status and non-status Cree and Dene, and some white students. Some students were local while others stayed in the "Anzac Dorm," returning home by train every other weekend.
Another Mennonite mission in Alberta, the Sunchild Mission, was operated by the Church of God in Christ (Mennonite) often referred to as the "Holdeman Mennonites." The mission operated three day schools. The Sunchild school opened on the Sunchild First Nation in 1950. The mission supplied teachers, and the buildings were government funded. The O'Chiese (or Baptiste River) school operated from 1951-1959 on or near the O'Chiese First Nation, after which children were bused to Sunchild. The Nordegg River school (1956-1964) operated with Mennonite teachers and some government funding. The Sunchild school closed in 1968 with the closing of the Sunchild Mission and opening of the Stelfox school with non-Mennonite staff.
The Northern Canada Evangelical Mission (NCEM), an interdenominational evangelical mission which drew support and workers in part from Mennonite communities, opened a "Christian Home for Neglected Children" at Timber Bay, Saskatchewan in 1952. NCEM operated the home, known as Montreal Lake Children's Home, until 1969, when it was turned over to the Canadian Conference of Brethren in Christ Churches. The dormitory housed Metis, First Nations and non-Indigenous children attending the public government-run school. Mennonite Central Committee Canada placed voluntary service workers at the Home from 1973 to 1989 or 1990. Some students also attended a residential school at nearby Montreal Lake First Nation. The school was sold shortly after MCC's involvement ceased.
Mennonite teachers have also worked in the Cumberland House area and in urban settings with Indigenous students. At the post-secondary level, Mennonites were involved in the establishment and administration of Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. Mennonites also worked with the Metis teacher education program, SUNTEP.
During the Second World War, beginning in 1943, 25 young Mennonite Brethren and Bergthaler (General Conference) men served Alternative Service terms in lieu of military service as missionaries, teachers or missionary -teachers at United Church missions in northern Manitoba. Six women, all trained teachers, also served. The communities where they were stationed (sites of United Church day schools) included Berens River, Cross Lake, God's Lake, Island Lake, Indian Springs and Long Plains, Little Grand Rapids, Nelson House, Norway House, Oxford House and Poplar River. In the post-war years a number of trained Mennonite teachers from southern Manitoba taught in the north, though not connected with any Mennonite mission or voluntary service program.
Mennonite Pioneer Mission (MPM), begun by the Bergthaler and later operated by the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, established day schools at the Pauingassi Settlement (1955) and Bloodvein First Nation (1963) in northern Manitoba. The Pauingassi school was funded first by MPM and began receiving government funding in 1958; by 1966 it was under government control.The school in Bloodvein amalgamated with an on-reserve Roman Catholic School in 1970, which was then placed under government control.
In 1974, Mennonite Central Committee Canada Voluntary Service program began a more concerted effort to place teachers and medical professionals in northern Manitoba communities. By 1975, five teachers had been placed, but by 1982 only one teacher was listed (at Roseau River, in southern Manitoba).
Red Lake Indian School (1956-1963), a mission-funded day school, was operated by the Mission Interests Committee, comprised of Amish, Amish-Mennonite and Beachy Amish groups in the midwestern United States. The school closed when the local public school opened to Indigenous students. From 1975-1988, the privately-funded Red Lake Christian School was operated by the Believer's Fellowship in Red Lake.
Northern Light Gospel Mission (NLGM) began as an independent Mennonite mission by Mennonites from Pennsylvania in 1953. The group established mission outposts among the Ojibwa in the greater Red Lake, Ontario area as well as three day schools. Two were soon replaced by government-run schools, but Poplar Hill Development School (until 1969, known as Poplar Hill Residential School) had a longer existence. Begun as a summer school in the mid 1950s, it became a winter day and residential school in 1960. From 1962-1989, the school was government-funded, and managed and operated by NLGM. In 1981, the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) gained some input into the running of the school. A dispute between NLGM and NNEC over the policy and practice of corporal punishment at the school was the immediate cause of its closure. Poplar Hill has been recognized in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. NLGM was a "faith based" mission not relying on any one denomination. Although much support for NLGM came from groups in the United States, support also came from some Mennonite groups in southern Ontario through contributions of funds, supplies, and some personnel.
Northern Youth Programs (NYP), an independent mission and youth outreach, began in 1967 when former Northern Light Gospel Mission workers Clair E. and Clara Schnupp moved to Dryden, Ontario. It formally incorporated in 1970. NYP operated two government-funded schools: Stirland Lake (a high school for boys originally named Wahbon Bay Academy) begun in 1971, and Cristal Lake (a school for girls) begun in 1976. As of 1983, the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council gained some input into the running of both schools. The two were amalgamated in 1986. In 1987, a physical confrontation broke out between students and staff at the school; following this incident students were sent home.Stirland Lake High School was the last Mennonite-run residential school to close, in 1991. Cristal Lake and Stirland Lake were added at a later date to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
In 1968 Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, after consultations with Indigenous leaders, began an initiative to promote the placement of Voluntary Service workers of various professions, including teachers, on reserves. A plan was also formed to provide billets to northern Ontario Indigenous high school students attending school in southern Ontario.
Block, Alvina. "Mennonite MIssionary Henry Neufeld and Syncretism among the Pauingassi Ojibwa, 1955-1970." Journal of Mennonite Studies 19 (2001): 47-64.
Doell, Leonard. “Mennonite COs and the United Church in Northern Aboriginal Communities.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 25 (2007): 125–36.
Epp-Tiessen, Esther. Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History. Winnipeg, Manitoba: CMU Press, 2013.
Friesen, Abram. God's Hand Upon My Life: Autobiography of Abram J. Friesen. Clearbrook, B.C.: [the author], 1986.
Gingrich, Newton L. Northern Youth Programs file, 1977-1979. Mennonite Archives of Ontario. Hist.Mss.220.127.116.119.
Glick, Isaac, Mildred Glick (authors) and Emma LaRocque (afterword). Risk and Adventure: Community Development in Northern Alberta (1955-1970). Newton, Kansas: Mennonite Press, 2016.
Government of Canada. "Cristal Lake Indian Residential School IAP School Narrative." National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives, 2013.
_____. "Poplar Hill Development School IAP School Narrative." National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives, 2012.
_____. "Stirland Lake Indian Residential School IAP School Narrative." National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives, 2013.
Gunten, Neill von and Edith von Gunten. From Paddles to Propellers: The History of Matheson Island a Fishing Community. Matheson Island, Man.: Matheson Island Community Council, 2003.
Habegger, Alfred and Malcolm Wenger. "Indian Ministries, North America." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989.
Klassen, Theodore A. Remembering Sunchild, 1949-1969. [Linden, Alberta?] : [the Author], [1995?].
LaRocque, Emma. "Me and Mennonites: The Way We Were 'The Other.'" Journal of Mennonite Writing. November 2012.
Lescheid, Helen Grace. Footprints of Compassion: The Story of MCC B.C., 1964-1989. Clearbrook, B.C.: MCC-BC, 1989.
Longhurst, John. "MCC Volunteers Worked at Boarding School Being Probed." Canadian Mennonite, September 13, 2021.
Mennonite Central Committee (Ontario). "Indian Plan Initiated." Annual Report, February 18, 1969.
Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan. "Submission to the FSIN Review of Corrections" (December 10, 1996) in Steve Heinrichs and Esther Epp-Tiessen, eds., Be It Resolved: Anabaptists & Partner Coalitions Advocate for Indigenous Justice, 1966-2020. Winnipeg, Man.: Mennonite Central Committee Canada and Mennonite Church Canada, 2020.
Neufeld, Henry. “’Never a Teacher’: Henry Neufeld and His ‘Indian Day School’ Experience.” Mennonite Historian. June 2018.
Northern Canada Evangelical Mission. Light on the Horizon: Northern Canada Evangelical Mission's Fifty Years of Ministry to Canada's First Peoples. Prince Albert, SK: Northern Canada Evangelical Mission, 1996.
Penner, Peter. No Longer at Arms Length : Mennonite Brethren Church Planting in Canada. Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1987.
_____. Reaching the Otherwise Unreached : An Historical Account of the West Coast Children’s Mission of B.C. Clearbrook, B.C: The Mission, 1959.
Regehr, T. D. Faith, Life and Witness in the Northwest, 1903-2003: Centennial History of the Northwest Mennonite Conference. Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2003.
_____. "Mennonite Voluntary Service Workers in Aboriginal and Metis Communities in Northern Alberta, 1954-1970." Journal of Mennonite Studies 19 (2001), 112-126.
_____. Mennonites in Canada: A People Transformed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
Siegrist, Anthony. “‘Part of the Authority Structure’: An Organizational History of Mennonite Indian Residential Schools in Ontario.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 2019.
Steiner, Samuel J. In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario. Kitchener, Ont.: Herald Press, 2015.
Stauffer, Robert. God Gave the Increase: The Work of Mission Interests Committee in Northwestern Ontario. Berlin, Ohio: TGS International, 2015.
Stoesz, Conrad. "Keep on Moving!" Mennonite Historian. June 2018.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Canada's Residential Schools: The History, Part 2 1939-2000 (Vol. 1). Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015.
United Church of Canada Archives. Day School Research Guide. Toronto: United Church of Canada Archives, August 2020.
Unrah, Shelia. "MCC Ends Work with Native Band." Canadian Mennonite, May 10, 1999, 16.
Northern Light Gospel Mission began as an independent Mennonite mission by Mennonites from Pennsylvania in 1953. The group established mission outposts among the Ojibwa in the greater Red Lake, Ontario area as well as three schools. Two were soon replaced by government-run schools, but Poplar Hill Development School had a longer existence, from 1962-1989. The organization later changed its name to Impact North Ministries. In 2006, Impact North Ministries folded, replaced with a new organization called Living Hope Native Ministries.
The Archives holds some records of this organization. At the time of writing, the official records are privately held.
This independent mission and youth outreach program began in 1967 when former Northern Light Gospel Mission workers Clair E. and Clara Schnupp moved to Dryden, Ontario. It formally incorporated in 1969. NYP operated Beaver Lake Camp, Wahbon Bay Academy (a high school for boys at Stirland Lake) Cristal Lake (school for girls, later merged with Wahbon Bay), Debwewin Bible Institute (at Beaver Lake) and an urban ministry in Thunder Bay.
The following national Canadian Mennonite newspapers in English include significant content by and about Indigenous peoples. A more fulsome index of specifically Indigenous-related content in The Canadian Mennonite and Mennonite Reporter is in process at this time. Contact the Archivist for details.