Tag Archives: residential schools

Molly Ann Gell

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Lt. Robert Petley, Fredericton NB from the Oromocto Road, 1837 Library and Archives Canada

In 1807 a Wolastoqiyik girl named Molly Ann Gell entered the Sussex Vale Indian Day School in Sussex Corner, New Brunswick. It was run by The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, an Anglican mission also known as the New England Company. Historian Leslie Upton told Molly Ann Gell’s story in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Here’s part of what he wrote:

Gell (Gill), Molly Ann (Thomas)

Molly Ann Gell was one of the five children of Joseph Gell, whose wife died in the winter of 1807. Aged and infirm, he was unable to provide for his family and turned them over to the company for the clothing allowance and 2s. 6d. a week. Molly was sent to learn domestic service in the household of the Reverend Oliver Arnold, master of the New England Company’s school at Sussex Vale (Sussex Corner) and minister of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Arnold had some half dozen apprentices at a time, for each of whom he received £20 a year.

There were especial hazards for the female apprentices. On 6 Jan. 1809 Molly Ann Gell deposed before the magistrates that, returning from Saint John the previous July, she had met a stranger who “Carried her into the Bushes and Against her Will forced her to Comply with his Wishes.” A son was born to her in February 1809, Joseph Solo Gill, who was taken on as an apprentice at birth by Arnold. Molly Ann Gell’s indentures expired in 1811; years later she confessed that the father of the child was Arnold’s son Joseph, who had seduced her in his father’s house.

This treatment of female apprentices was not uncommon. The illegitimate children were taken on as apprentices and so tended to make the program self-perpetuating. No fewer than 13 persons of the name of Gell, for example, appear on the apprenticeship lists.

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William G. R. Hind Harvesting Hay, Sussex NB 1880. Library and Archives Canada

Dr. Upton says that in 1822 Molly Ann married a black man named Peter Thomas. They had five children and lived near Sussex Corner.

Google could not help me find out more about Molly Ann, Peter Thomas or their children. In his 1892 biography of Rev. Arnold, Leonard A. Allison lists seven Arnold children but none named Joseph (pp. 16-17).

School closed after 30 years

Sussex Vale school closed in 1826. Two reports (Bromley 1822 and West 1825) cited operational and efficacy problems. In terms of the school’s operation, there was maltreatment and abuse of students. Molly Ann Gell’s story was not unique. There was also undue enrichment of school management and local white residents, through the “fostering” stipends and free labour. Secondly, the school wasn’t doing its job. Students were not actually receiving any useful education and neither they nor their families were converting from Roman Catholicism to the Anglican faith.

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Sussex Vale, New Brunswick. Currier and Ives print ca. 1870

The New England Company didn’t rethink the merits of white, Christian education for First Nations. They just changed how they did it. They moved west from New Brunswick and adopted a fully residential school system.

For more see Judith Fingard, “The New England Company and the New Brunswick Indians: A comment on the colonial perversion of British benevolence, 1786-1826” in Acadiensis (Spring 1972) 1:2:29-42.  Also see Andrea Bear Nicholas, “The Role of Colonial Artists in the Disposition and Displacement of the Maliseet, 1790s-1850s” for more on the artist Robert Petley, in J. of Canadian Studies (Spring 2015) 49:2:25-86.

Secret Path

Chanie Wenjack died October 23rd 1966. He was twelve. He and two other boys ran away from their residential school, taking a Chanie Wenjack the secret path jeff-lemire-cbcsecret path north into the bush. They wanted to go home. The other boys succeeded. They found their uncle’s cabin and stayed with him. Chanie’s home, however, was much farther away. He didn’t know where exactly, so he left on his own to continue walking until he found it.

But he didn’t. Chanie died of exposure following the train track he hoped would take him home. He did get home, in the end. Indian Affairs sent his body by train and then plane home to Ogoki Post, 600 km north of the residential school he attended in Kenora, Ontario.

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Fort Albany residential school, ca 1945, Edmund Metatawabin Collection, University of Algoma

Chanie, or Charlie as they called him at the school, was Ojibwe. He is one of thousands of First Nations children who died at residential schools in Canada. Families of  the dead and survivors have told their stories to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack

Chanie Wenjack’s story was told at the time of his death. A 1967 article in Maclean’s paints a bleak picture of a boy’s unnecessary death and of unwanted institutional life. Author Ian Adams:

“The jury found that ‘the Indian education system causes tremendous emotional adjustment problems.’… But the most poignant suggestion was the one that reflected their own bewilderment: ‘A study be made of the present Indian education and philosophy. Is it right?'”

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Christmas Vacation letter to parents 1948, Kamloops Indian Residential School. Tap to enlarge.

50 years on, Chanie Wenjack’s story is getting new tellings. Gord Downie, of The Tragically Hip, and graphic novelist Jeff Lemire tell it in song and pictures. The Secret Path is a elegy, and eulogy, for Chanie and all the children forced into residential schools. Joseph Boyden published a novella, Wenjack, imagining the final days of a too short life.

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“This powerful graffiti message by an anonymous artist was painted on all of the doors of St. Michael’s Residential School before its demolition in 2015.”

For over a century, government and churches took children way from their families, and their languages and their identities. Many also  were abused sexually and psychologically. For all, however, the direct or indirect assumption that their First Nations cultures were not good enough was abuse. It probably takes as long to rebuild a culture as it does to kill one. So it’s going to take a long time to recover.

The photos of the door and the letter are from Project of Heart: Illuminating the hidden history of Indian Residential Schools in BC (BC Teachers Federation pdf).