Poplar Hill's closure remembered

August 26, 2010 | Feature | Volume 14 Issue 16
Ross W. Muir | Managing editor
<p>Poplar Hill (Ont.) Residential School is pictured in <em>A Brief History of Northern Light Gospel Missions</em>, 1977, by Mary Horst.</p>

The Poplar Hill (Ont.) Development School—the only Mennonite-affiliated school being officially looked at by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) currently making the rounds of Canadian communities—has been out of the news for more than two decades.

The same can’t be said for the two-year period between 1989-91, when the residential school, which opened its doors in 1962, made headlines in the Mennonite Reporter a total of seven times. Poplar Hill was a program of the Northern Gospel Light Mission.

The front page of the Nov. 13, 1989, issue featured the headline, “Native mission school shut down over discipline controversy.”

“We disagreed with the method of spanking,” Rodney Howe, a member of Northern Nishnawbe Education council is quoted as saying. Later in the story, though, Howe—who had been adopted by a Mennonite family in the U.S. and whose father worked at Poplar Hill as a dormitory supervisor—acknowledged that some aboriginal parents “do spank” their children and that “some do a lot worse than that to their children.”

“We tried to hear their concerns,” said Cello Meekis, the aboriginal chair of the school board that ran Poplar Hill, in the same article. “But rather than giving up biblical principles [that permit spanking], we decided to stay within our guidelines.”

In the lead story of Jan. 8, 1990, issue, Margaret Loewen Reimer wrote of clashes by aboriginal groups over the future of the school. “Many parents want to see the school opened again,” Merle Schantz stated. He noted that 61 students from the aboriginal community of Osnaburgh in northwestern Ontario were out of class because of Poplar Hill’s closure. “Some were shipped to a school in Winnipeg,” he said, “but one girl got raped there and the students returned home.”

 The article also noted that the aboriginal education council had opened an investigation on abuse at Poplar Hill, but that no one had come forward to make a complaint at that point.

The issue of corporal punishment at Poplar Hill caused concern for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada who opposed this type of discipline as a matter of principle. The story quoted MCC volunteers James and Kate Kroeker, who related a story told by a former student at Poplar Hill who recounted being beaten. “Let’s not call them spankings,” Kroeker said, adding that the girl was “very bitter.”

In two April 1990 issues, letters from readers were published, revealing a divide in feelings.

One from 12 former staffers supported the school against all accusations levelled against it. “Native parents entrusted their children to the school, and it was under this ‘guardianship’ that they were well supervised, loved and made to feel secure in this ‘away-from-home’ establishment,” they wrote, adding that, “[C]orporal punishment, administered in love, often evoked affection from the offender . . . .”

However, Martin Cross from Saskatoon, Sask., wrote that the mention of residential schools “immediately brings to mind whippings, kicks, slaps and separation from one’s native land.” He called on Mennonites to “consider making an apology,” and offered his own “personal amends to any native people who are affected by our suppression.”

In May 1990, the Mennonite Reporter published a joint letter from Northern Light and MCC that attempted to bridge their differences; it also took the newspaper to task for further polarizing opinion, instead of helping readers to “understand each other during difficult times.”

The school faded away from the limelight in February 1991, when it was reported that a police investigation into claims of child abuse had ended. “No charges were laid because the students who had been strapped did not want to press charges,” the story indicated, adding, “and because a section in the criminal code that protects adults in authority if they used corporal punishment.”

The school never re-opened.

See other stories related to the 2010 Truth and Reconciliation Commission events:  

“How complicit are Mennonites in Residential School Abuse?”  Evelyn Rempel Petkau attended the first TRC hearings and spoke with Mennonites about whether the church might be complicit in the system.   

“With God, all things are possible”- A residential school survivor recalls childhood abuse and his quest to forgive his tormentors.

“A first step toward healing”- A personal reflection on the first TRC events, held in June 2010 

​“MC Canada shares the pain of Indian Residential School legacy”- A report on discussions at Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2010

“Mennonite treaty rights”- The implications of Treaty 1 

“Forgiveness to what end?” An editorial on accepting and offering forgiveness

“For discussion: August 23, 2010 issue”- Questions for reflecting and discussing 

Poplar Hill (Ont.) Residential School is pictured in A Brief History of Northern Light Gospel Missions, 1977, by Mary Horst.

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I found a booklet called "The Northern Lights Our Lamp" by Alvin Frey, in a box of older materials. I was so taken in by the story of this (supposedly young) man having driven a Massey Ferguson those many miles, over treacherous winter conditions for a four week journey. The purpose being to bring a means for Indigenous people to engage in agriculture, logging, etc.
Where is Alvin Frey now? Can anyone give me more information?

I was there just before it got closed and I do remember something. But memories are faint--I can’t quite remember. I was only 5-6 years old when I first went there. All I remember is being forced on the plane. I couldn’t speak my own language and I was told I was speaking the devil's tongue, so they locked me up in a small room for a day or longer. There was this one time when I talked back, but then I was told to go chop wood in a shed, where it was very cold. I had to do it just to keep warm. I must have been maybe 9-10 years old, maybe older. And there was a bunch of us that fled from there and spent a cold night in the bush till they caught us. We couldn’t cross the rapids towards Pikangikum.

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