In 1893 the Red Deer Industrial School opened with
John Nelson as its first
principal. Despite a promising start, the school quickly experienced
financial problems as the government changed its funding
strategy from one of paying all costs to a per capita grant system. In the
case of the Red Deer School, the government paid for the land and the building,
some repairs and supplies, and $130 per student to pay for food, clothing, salaries, medicine
and transportation. The Red Deer School scaled back its original plan of two buildings
to house 80 students to one building that would accommodate 50 students, teachers and Nelson's family.
Students came from reserves at Morley,
Hobbema, White Whale Lake, Whitefish Lake, Goodfish Lake and Saddle Lake.
With limited resources Nelson managed to develop the buildings and
grounds and establish a curriculum. He was so pleased with the progress of the students that he
took a number of them to the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan District
of the Methodist Church, held in the Cree community at Saddle Lake in May,
1895 and reported:
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 in 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 today.
Nevertheless, the school had problems common to many industrial and
residential schools: corporal punishment was an issue of contention with
Aboriginal parents; schools were a breeding ground for tuberculosis and
other epidemics (17 out of 62 students who attended the Red
Deer school while Nelson was principal died at the school or
within a decade of attending it). Often induced by corporal punishment and the spread of
disease, student desertion was common (the Register of Admissions and Discharges
for 1893 notes 12 out of 52 students deserting).
In 1895 Nelson was transferred to Norway House to start a new
industrial school while Red Deer Industrial continued under the
auspices of the Methodist Church of Canada until its closure in 1919.
Utah H. "Reverend Mr. John Nelson: Missionary with an Impossible
Mission." In Aspenland
1998: Local Knowledge and a Sense of Place.
David J. Goa and David Ridley. Red
Deer: Central Alberta Museums Network, 1998.