At the launch of Running: The Alex Decoteau Story there were questions about where Alex grew up and went to school. Much of my information about Alex came from his great niece Izola Mottershead, who wrote the book before–Alex Decoteau-after. Alex and his four siblings attended the Battleford Industrial School in Saskatchewan. Izola’s book was launched at a performance of the family version of my play on November 11, 2004.Walter Julian Wasylow (1922-2011)wrote his master's thesis (University of Saskatchewan, 1972) on the history of this school, entitled History of Battleford Industrial School for Indians. I asked my husband, Tom Cameron, to comment on this work for me as he has been fully engaged in my project from the start. Tom has a long-standing interest in the history of this region and he enjoyed searching out all the sites for us to visit. Here are Tom's comments:
It is fascinating how the Internet and digital media have become useful tools for the exploration of the life and times of Alex Decoteau. The Battleford Industrial School that he attended is now both a provincial heritage property and part of Fort Battleford National Historic Site. With the downloadable phone app Explora, you have access to maps, photos, information and quizzes all relevant to precise locations of the Fort Battleford National Historic Site.
In 2003, on the way to a family reunion at Jackfish Lake (The Battlefords Provincial Park), we explored the region including Red Pheasant First Nation, Duck Lake, and sites related to the Riel Rebellion including Fort Battleford National Historic Site. I took photos of the building and grounds of the school site. This was shortly before the main building burnt to the ground later that year.
Prior to becoming an Industrial School, this was the location of Government House. “Constructed in 1876 to 1877, the building was the first permanent residence of the North-West Territories Lieutenant Governor. As the legislative centre for the appointed Territorial Council, more than two-thirds of Canada’s Geographical land mass was administered from this location from 1876 until 1883 when the territorial capital was moved to Regina.” (Provincial Heritage Property, March 2005.)
Walter Julian Wasylow (1922-2011) wrote a M.Ed. thesis on the History of Battleford Industrial School for Indians at the Univeristy of Saskatchwan in 1972. His obituary provides context for this important work that he completed at the age of 50. His thesis, available as a facsimile edition, runs to over 500 pages and gives more than a glimpse into the school life of Alex Decoteau. There is a 1903 picture of Decoteau on page 180 of the thesis as part of a football (soccer) team and many references to other family members. On page 457 there is a first person reference to him from a 1962 interview with individuals who went to school there with him. Amazing!
Alex attended the Industrial School during the period of highest enrollment (over 100 boys and girls) and during the key transition time as the school was being transferred from direct administration by Indian Affairs to it becoming a church-run school supported on a per capital basis by Indian Affairs.
Wasylow’s "Summary and Conclusions" chapter will come as no surprise to anyone following the current Canadian Truth and Reconciliation proceedings on the lasting impact of residential schools. His early work pulls together threads and data into a comprehensive overview of the school, the curriculum (or lack of one), discipline, student health issues, the high death rate, as well as the suppression of language and Indianisms. Much can be read between the lines. While Wasylow doesn’t use the phrase cultural genocide, he discusses the “isolationist policy which alienated Indian people from it. (the school) Visits by parents were restricted. Many students died during their stay at Battleford Industrial School.”
Wasylow, a career educator, realized how critical Indian languages were to cultural survival. He wrote: “The language not only grew out of the culture of the Indian people, but preserved it and influenced it to a great extent … The Indians grew increasingly suspicious of the Industrial institution which alienated their children from them. The resistance against the school grew among the Indians until it became impossible for the school to continue. The Government, although not questioning its goals for the Indian people, became disillusioned about the effectiveness of Battleford Industrial School. Between the Indian and the Government the school was forced out of existence.”