Ontario Mennonites and Aboriginal Residential Schools

The Ontario Mennonite community is implicated in the recent report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the tragedy of the residential schools in which First Nations children were removed from their homes and placed in church-run residential schools. A little background is required.

Irwin and Susan Schantz, two Mennonites from near Quakertown, Pennsylvania, moved to northern Minnesota in 1938 to initiate mission work among small rural communities. They founded a number of churches and turned them over to the North Central Conference of the Mennonite Church. In 1952 Schantz explored the Lake-of-the-Woods area, and later traveled as far north as Red Lake in northwest Ontario. He encountered several aboriginal communities where he preached and led Bible schools. In June 1953, with a new pilot’s license, Schantz established mission outposts in the greater Red Lake area among the Ojibwa people, beginning at Pikangikum, followed by Poplar Hill and Deer Lake. While Schantz provided supervision, each outpost was run by two or three young adults.

Poplar Hill School 1980s

Poplar Hill Development School classroom, 1980s. Courtesy Living Hope Native Ministries.

Northern Light Gospel Mission (NLGM), as the ministry was called, also established day schools at Grassy Narrows, North Spirit Lake, and Poplar Hill. The first two were soon replaced by government-run schools. In fall 1962 at Poplar Hill, with government financial assistance, Northern Light Gospel Mission opened the Poplar Hill Development School, a residential school for aboriginal children. Initially it had residential facilities for thirty students; by 1977 it had fifty-five students with thirty adult support staff.

Although many of Northern Light Gospel Mission’s volunteers and staff came from the United States, it attracted long-term support both in money and personnel from Mennonites in southern Ontario. Elaine Zehr from the Heidelberg Conservative Mennonite Church taught at the Poplar Hill Development School for fourteen years between 1962 and 1979. Mary Horst from the same congregation was the bookkeeper for the mission from 1970 to 1983. Frieda Lebold of the Maple View Mennonite Church near Wellesley worked at Poplar Hill from 1967 to 1986. Alvin and Lydian Frey from the Hawkesville Mennonite Church served at two other NLGM locations from 1959 to 1980.

In the 1980s Canada experienced a widespread renewal of First Nations culture and self-understanding. The repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982 included protection of existing aboriginal and treaty rights, including their traditions and practices. The aboriginal community began to identify itself as First Nations, and traditional, pre-Christian religion experienced a renaissance. This changing culture created a dilemma for Christian mission groups working among the First Nations, including the Mennonites. First Nations people identified church-run, government-financed schools as part of the source of aboriginal community breakdown, since children were indoctrinated in European languages and culture, and were not permitted to participate with their families in traditional First Nations customs. This meant the children were no longer able to work and live as their parents had. These emerging issues had a profound impact on NLGM, especially the Poplar Hill Development School.

In 1989 an intense struggle ensued between the Poplar Hill school board and the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC), which controlled the federal government funding for schools in First Nations communities. The Poplar Hill Development School had hosted 55 students the previous year, and it was governed by a board of four aboriginal and two NLGM staff members. Cello Meekis was the board chair. The government and the NNEC had received complaints about corporal punishment used by school staff to discipline students. The NNEC tried, but failed, to obtain the consent of NLGM to discontinue the practice of using the strap in student discipline. Additionally, the NNEC wanted its own seats on the school’s board. This was refused by the Poplar Hill board, since this expanded board would profoundly change the nature of the private Christian school. With no government funding then available, the Poplar Hill Development School did not reopen in fall 1989.

Cello Meekis

Cello Meekis in the 1970s. Courtesy Living Hope Native Ministries.

The conflict between Poplar Hill Development School board and the NNEC generated heated discussion within the mass media. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) picked up the story partly because the local CBC reporter was a friend of a former Poplar Hill student who had been corporally disciplined. Don Showalter, NLGM’s director of education, was interviewed by CBC news, and the Globe and Mail carried a short article. Margaret Loewen Reimer did a more nuanced story in Mennonite Reporter in November 1989 after interviewing the CBC reporter, former student and staff member Rodney Howe, board chair Cello Meekis, and Merle Schantz, the general director of NLGM and son of the founder, Irwin Schantz.

Rodney Howe was a pivotal interpreter of events during this time. He was an aboriginal man who had been adopted by a Mennonite family at the age of seven. He spent seven years at Poplar Hill while his father was a dorm supervisor at the school. Rodney himself served for one year on Poplar Hill’s staff as a counselor. He did not experience corporal punishment himself while a student and did not regard the school as abusive. However, he did not agree with the school’s use of the strap for punishment, and he thought the school’s board would have discontinued its practice except for the influence of the school’s director of education. Howe said Poplar Hill students were disciplined if they spoke their traditional languages in class, and that there was little teaching about aboriginal culture. He admitted he had not raised concerns about this or the corporal discipline while at the school. Merle Schantz conceded the school had made mistakes and may have disciplined students too severely at times. However, he believed the major issue was the NNEC’s desire to have a direct voice in running the school. Cello Meekis noted that the community was divided, and that few complaints had been made directly to the school.

The NNEC’s investigation of abuse at Poplar Hill did not find evidence of sexual abuse by teachers or staff. The primary complaints were use of the strap in corporal punishment and the destruction of aboriginal culture.

In hindsight it appears that the NLGM and Poplar Hill staff were slow to understand and adapt to the changing cultural milieu within the Canadian aboriginal communities. The NLGM had been very missionary-leadership driven since its inception, and slow to develop indigenous leadership. Religious teaching continued to be mixed with cultural values of settler Canadians (and Mennonites) in an era when this mixed message faced increasing opposition. Poplar Hill was also included in the Canadian residential school legal actions that came in the 1990s.

In 1997 Impact North Ministries, a successor name of Northern Light Gospel Mission, issued an apology. The document recognized that, although staff members acted in good faith, the school made cultural impositions on the First Nations students, including limited aboriginal language rights, foreign methods of discipline, and a lack of cultural sensitivity that “served to devalue First Nations culture in the minds of young people and may therefore have contributed to personal struggles and dysfunction.”

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite and First Nations people, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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3 thoughts on “Ontario Mennonites and Aboriginal Residential Schools

  1. The systemic disappropriation of Native children from their language and culture is legally recognized as cultural genocide, I feel this article misses that point. It’s not that these children were strapped for their behaviour, it’s what behaviours they were strapped for that’s the issue, that we need to have a dialogue with ourselves and our communities about, about how Mennonites became complicit in cultural genocide, and what that means.


  2. Pingback: Ontario Mennonites and Criminal Behavior | In Search of Promised Lands

  3. I just noticed this story, and I think it was a real tragedy that Northern Light Gospel Mission drew a line in the sand on such a morally and culturally dubious practice. As the senior class teacher for the 1984-1985 academic year, I was deeply disturbed when I learned of the nature of the corporal punishment administered at Poplar Hill. I was not opposed to corporal punishment, but what was described to me by the principal (inviting me to participate in “spanking” one of my students) went well beyond anything I would have expected from a Mennonite institution. I objected through every inside, proper channel I could, to no avail, and eventually spoke to one of the groups investigating the case. It didn’t have to turn out the way it did.


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