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1886 – 1960 (School); 1961- 1970 (Residence) [1970 -1975 continued as a Residence but the United Church was no longer involved.]
For a fuller history of the school see The Children Remembered, United Church of Canada Residential School Project.
Portage la Prairie Residential School, about 100 km west of Winnipeg in southern Manitoba, began as a small day school initiated by ten women of Portage la Prairie’s Knox Presbyterian Church in 1886. The school was open to all comers, lunch was provided daily and clothes were distributed as needed. At first the school was operated without financial assistance from the larger Church but in 1887 the Presbyterian Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) agreed to the necessary support to turn the school into a boarding establishment. Initially, pupils were drawn from the reserve on the outskirts of Portage la Prairie. The school went through several incarnations during its early years and moved to a site of 59 acres on the outskirts of the town near Crescent Lake in 1914. The large acreage was acquired to enable the development of a farm, and operation that continued until the school became a residence only in 1961.
After the expansion of the physical plant pupils came from other southern Manitoba reserves. Capacity was increased from around 20 pupils in 1901 to 100 by 1920. In 1925, the buildings at the school, now under the auspices of the United Church’s Woman’s Missionary Society, were expanded again to accommodate even more pupils. When the Residential School in Norway House was temporarily closed in 1946 because of a fire, children began to attend from further afield and this continued until the school closed.
In 1957, the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) and the United Church agreed on a major reorganization of both Brandon IRS and Portage la Prairie IRS—the only two United Church residential schools left in Manitoba. The schools’ combined student population was divided into younger, elementary students, who would attended Brandon IRS, and older students (grade 6 and above) destined for Portage la Prairie IRS. Portage began to integrate some of its older boarders into schools in the city as the DIA purchased space for them in the public system. The first 25 began attending high school there in 1957.
Gradually integration increased, until in 1961 Portage la Prairie IRS closed its last classroom and it was exclusively a student residence. At the time 129 children were attending public schools in the city. In 1962, when the WMS ended, the United Church’s Board of Home Missions assumed responsibility for the school. The church continued to be active with the students, staff functioning as “teacher-advisors”, providing supervision, academic and personal support. In 1970 the United Church ended its involvement at Portage, although members of Portage Presbytery continued to support the school in small ways. In 1975 the residence was closed by the Federal government.
Records held in this Archives related to the Portage School include some from c1887 to c1900 (in the personal papers of Rev. Andrew B. Baird) but are primarily from the period after 1962 when the Board of Home Missions acquired responsibility for the school. A history of the School, written by Amanda MacKay is in her personal papers. See the 2014 Index of IRS Related Records for details. WMS records related to the school from its beginnings until 1962, are held in the General Council Archives in Toronto, although they are not extensive. Records may also be held by the Canadian government. In 2014, the United Church submitted all its records related to Indian Residential Schools to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and they have since been donated to the University of Manitoba National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The following documents (all from this Archives) represent a somewhat random dip into the collection, with examples from decades across time. They are intended to present a sampling of the kind of records held. Each document provides a window on the context, revealing something about the various players (the school, the government, the church, the students, the parents and so on) and into the era. It is always important to remember that any one document cannot depict the whole reality. For an honest understanding of the complex nature of Indian Residential Schools a more thorough examination is required.
All the digitized records, as well as all the paper files, in the Archives are available to researchers. Contact the Keeper of the Archives for more information and to request copies or to use these documents.
The language and views expressed in these historic documents are not censored. They are not reflective of the Church today. For information on current United Church of Canada right relations work -including apologies to survivors of Residential Schools please visit www.united-church.ca
1887 “The World for Christ” Annual Report Pamphlet of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, (Western Division), Presbyterian Church in Canada. (505/2/1 Manitoba Conference Branch Woman’s Missionary Society Archives Collection, Indian Work in Manitoba Box 505/2-1, c30 d1)
Includes financial details for work at Portage and other day schools they are sponsoring.
1891 Report for the School at Portage la Prairie for the quarter ending March 31, 1891 (Andrew. B. Baird Personal Papers, Correspondence and Sundry Reports January – March 1891, Document E1017, c234 d44)
Quarterly reports were sent to the Professors Baird and Hart, Co-conveners of the Foreign Mission Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Bessie Walker is the teacher who completed this form.
1898 Series of Letters to Rev. Professor Andrew Baird, Foreign Mission Committee: S.R. Marlau, Office of the Inspector of Indian Agencies, Lake Manitoba Inspectorate; C.S.B. Burley, Dry Goods Store; Edward Brown, J&E Brown Department Store (Andrew. B. Baird Personal Papers Correspondence and Sundry Reports January – June 1898, Documents H1004-1008; c249 d77, 78, 79)
These letters discuss a Portage student “Topsy”. She has been staying with the Burley family, who object to her being removed from their home to be returned to live at the school. The next document, a history of the school, describes how “Topsy” came to be at the school.
n.d. (Before 1946) Amanda MacKay, “Notes on Early History of the Indian Industrial School Portage la Prairie, (Amanda Norris MacKay Personal Papers, c271 d1).
A brief history written by Amanda MacKay, who lived in Portage at the time the school began. She recounts how a young black girl named Inkabah came to the school, where she was renamed “Topsy”. See the above documents about the same girl.
1933 The Story of the Years, Woman’s Missionary Society Annual Report 1932-1933, (Excerpt on Boarding Schools and School Homes; and Indian Work), United Church of Canada (UW 1933, c282 d1)
Masters of communication, the WMS published narrative reports from their missionaries in the field. The reports give personality to the work and those conducting it. This excerpt includes reports on: Ahousaht, Alberni, File Hills, Kitamaat, Portage la Prairie, Port Simpson, Round Lake and Teulon Residence (although at the time it was a residence for the children of immigrant families.)
1942 Correspondence between Rev. J.A. Cormie, Superintendent of Home Missions, Manitoba Conference and Isabel McIntosh Loveys, Home Mission Executive Secretary, Woman’s Missionary Society and Mrs. L.J. Reycraft, of unknown position, WMS (509/2/2-5-2 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – ‘Property’ and ‘Maintenance’ Files – Brandon Residential School File ‘Maintenance Claims’, Brandon Residential School Correspondence 1938-1953, Box 509/2/2-5; c99, d13, 14, 15)
A discussion between the Board of Home Missions and the WMS about conditions at the Portage School, detailing financial arrangements and authority for decisions over staff and other aspects of the operations.
1950s (circa) Portage la Prairie School Badge (509/2 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – Presbyteries Files – Portage la Prairie Presbytery, Box 509/2/2-17 Portage Indian Student Residence General Correspondence, c167 d2)
This is a scan of an artefact. These are rare in archival collections. See this badge above
1953 Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School Annual Financial Statement 1953 (509/2/2-5-2 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – ‘Property’ and ‘Maintenance’ Files – Brandon Residential School File ‘Maintenance Claims’, Brandon Residential School Correspondence 1938-1953, Box 509/2/2-5; c99, d67)
High level financial statement showing sources of income and categories of expenses.
1962 Agreement for the Operation of Portage la Prairie Residential School between Her Majesty the Queen, represented by Minister of Citizenship and The United Church of Canada (509/2/5 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – General Files – McMurtry & Smith, Church and Government Owned Indian Residences [ca. 1960 – 1967], Box S-4-2. (CA0211), c88 d9)
An example of the formal arrangement between government and church.
1965 (circa) era Student Manual, Indian Student Residence, Portage la Prairie, authorized by J.O. Harris, Administrator of Portage ISR (509/2/5 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – General Files – McMurtry & Smith, Church and Government Owned Indian Residences [ca. 1960 – 1967], Box S-4-2. (CA0211), c88 d5)
Other editions of this booklet are in the collection, suggesting it was used throughout the decade.
1967 Brief on Staff Salaries, G. H. Lowther, Chairman of Portage Indian Student Residence Advisory Committee (509/2/5 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – General Files – McMurtry & Smith, Church and Government Owned Indian Residences [ca. 1960 – 1967], Box S-4-2. (CA0211), c88 d24)
Concerns over the competitiveness of staff salaries and the resulting calibre of staff.
1968 (circa) Portage Indian Student Residence information brochure (509/2/5 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – General Files – McMurtry & Smith, Church and Government Owned Indian Residences, Box S-4-2. (CA0211), c88 d8)
This brochure includes photographs of the school, staff, students and Portage la Prairie.
1970 United Church Sunday Bulletin Cover, “EXPO ’70 HERE WE COME!” (509/2/2 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – Presbyteries Files – Portage la Prairie Presbytery, Box 509/2/2-17 Portage Indian Student Residence General Correspondence, c167 d35)
This Bulletin cover, probably prepared early in 1969 because of the lead time needed for congregations to purchase them in yearly packages for use in Sunday worship, depicts the Portage Indian Residence Glee Club, “Canada’s Singing Indians” and plans to attend Expo ’70 in Japan. (The choir did succeed in raising the funds and went to Japan in July, 1970.)
1973 Letter to Division of Mission in Canada, United Church from Raymond R. Smith, Conference Staff, Manitoba Conference regarding recent news of closing Portage Residence (509/2/2 Records of the Superintendents of Home Missions – Presbyteries Files – Portage la Prairie Presbytery, Box 509/2/2-17 Portage Indian Student Residence General Correspondence, c167 d15)
The United Church is no longer operating the Residence. Included are two news clippings: “Indian Schools Closing” Winnipeg Free Press and “Federal gov’t plans to close Indian schools” Winnipeg Tribune.