Nov 282014

Mary Bruce:

Selected Photographs from Norway House



Mary E. Bruce worked as a matron at Norway House Residential School in Norway House, Manitoba from 1929-1932. Her photographs provide a remarkable view of life at the school and in the larger community and illustrate her love of the local landscape and of photography.

Mary Bruce, photographer and teacher taken at Norway House, Manitoba c 1929-32. (UCCArchivesWpg bruce N201)

Mary Bruce: teacher, avid photographer and artist at Norway House, Manitoba 1929 -1932. 

Biographical details for Miss Bruce are incomplete. She was born in 1902 in the Bear Creek District of Manitoba and grew up on the family farm at Helston, near Gladstone. It is known that she was back at the family farm in 1950 helping to care for her widowed sister’s family (Anna (Bruce) Smirl). Anna visited Mary in Norway House and is in one of the images in this exhibit. Later Mary worked at Birtle Residential School and possibly did mission work on Vancouver Island. Mary died in 1982.

The Mary Bruce fonds is comprised of 280 images which were acquired in 2002 when a neice, Marilyn Dunham, donated them to the United Church Archives, Winnipeg.

Miss Bruce was also a watercolour painter. Several of the photographs have been hand coloured and it is evident that she experimented with technique. It is not known if her interest in photography continued after she left Norway House or if other examples of her photographic work have survived.

The Exhibit through the Eyes of the Curators

This exhibit was curated by Lorne Coulson and Maya De Forest.  (Short biographies follow their comments.)

Lorne: My role in this exhibition has been threefold: helping select the photos, restoring the digital copies to the condition of the original photograph and printing the final images.

The collection shows the broad range of subject matter that Mary Bruce chose to document — the northern landscape, the community and its people. The images contrast the traditional way of life of Canada’s First Nations’ population with that of white European Canadian society. Aside from the collection’s important documentary value, her work also exhibits a sense of artistry that is illustrated in her compositions. She has captured the vastness of the landscape. Her portraits and group shots show a closeness and familiarity with the people. There is a general sense of wonder and interest in her photographs of the community. The delicate hues of her hand-coloured photographs demonstrate a desire to expand and explore the traditional boundaries of the photographic medium of the time period.

Maya: The Mary Bruce Fond was the first series of photographs I scanned in my role of managing the United Church Archives Still Image Holding.  The benefit of scanning at high resolutions is the ability to see details in a photographic print that the naked eye can’t decipher, while also allowing time to sit with an image and ponder.

In my time spent with each photograph I could look beyond the document to get a greater sense of Mary Bruce the photographer, and the person. The variety shown in her work, from planes and boats to industrial artifacts, expresses a youthful curiosity and adventurous spirit that I believe was beyond many women of that time. What truly separates her from other photographers is her artistic eye. Her use of negative space around her subjects give a greater context to the story while her sense of pattern and space keep your eye engaged. Her colored photographs are quietly alluring: the use of dramatic colors within her small landscapes and her subtle color choices for more serene images. Her informal photographs of fellow staff members reveal fun and collegial spirit. Her photographs of the students at the School show a sense of comfort and amiability.

This exhibit was first seen at Artsfest 2013, a University of Winnipeg festival highlighting and celebrating the rich cultural artifacts held by several entities on campus. The exhibit of 26 framed images was officially opened September 30, displayed on the walls in the Archives Centre reading room. Interest in hosting the framed exhibit should be directed to the Keeper of the Archives.


Lorne Coulson has been involved in photography since the early 1970’s, working as a photographer for the Media Department at the University of Winnipeg and teaching photography and media production at the high school level for 26 years. Currently he is immersed in advertising, restorative, archival and fine art digital imaging. His work in the archival community has involved digitization, teaching and consultation with various members of the Association of Manitoba Archives.

Maya de Forest received her BFA in Photography from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Her avid interest in using the book medium as a focus for her photography led to her first photo based artist book titled I love here now, a portrait of her aging Japanese mother who immigrated to Winnipeg in the late fifties. Maya has a photo book design business DEFOZ which specializes in memory books for people with dementia and incorporates her interests in photography, books, design and storytelling.

Norway House

Norway House is situated near the confluence of the Nelson River and Lake Winnipeg, 800 kilometers north of Winnipeg by road. This area was familiar to the indigenous people of Northern Manitoba as a transportation route long before Europeans arrived. Swampy Cree communities were the most numerous in the area.

Norway House was established as a fur trading posted in 1814 and rose in prominence because of its location on the route to York Factory. It was a significant centre of operations and by the mid 1800s had attracted a large settlement of indigenous people employed in the fur trade. Treaty was signed in 1875 (Treaty 5) when steam navigation began to open up the area. Norway House was a popular tourist destination by the 1920s.

The Norway House Reserve was recognized officially in 1923. Today there are about 7000 Band members and 600 community members living in the adjacent off-reserve community.

Norway House Residential School

Reverend James Evans, a Methodist, established the Rossville Mission and day school at Norway House in 1840. At the request of The Methodist Church, the Federal Department of Indian Affairs opened the Residential School December 13, 1899; in 1925 the school was transferred to the newly formed United Church. The original building was destroyed in a fire in 1913 and replaced on a new site by the impressive building that Mary Bruce knew.

Follow these links to learn more about Norway House Residential School and the history and legacy of the Schools.