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Residential Schools and Reconciliation

The Residential School issue continues to come to my mind.  I know it is a very serious and disturbing subject that everyone would like to avoid—except the media.  The reason I am writing on this subject is because I believe the media are using it to stir up hatred and animosity that will only bring more harm than good.  I have followed the news on the stories that have come out about the several unmarked graveyards across western Canada.  I believe the media are spinning this issue in a very dangerous direction which will accomplish no good for any side involved in this matter.   

I really believe there are lots of assumptions being made with the gravesites.  It seems to me that these discovered gravesites could have been from past pandemics like smallpox, tuberculosis and Spanish flu, to name a few. Those pandemics wiped out thousands of Canadians in the latter part of the 1800’s and early 1900’s.  The smallpox pandemic was so bad in the later part of the 1800’s in Saskatchewan that anyone coming to the Saskatchewan district was in quarantine and were not allowed back into Manitoba.  In Chapter 17 of the book By Canoe and Dog Team by Edgerton Young, we read that the Governor of Manitoba issued a proclamation that absolutely prohibited any trade and communication in any way with the infected district of Saskatchewan as it is today.  Not a single Red River cart or traveller was permitted to go on the Red River trail that connected Saskatchewan with Fort Gary, now Winnipeg.  The situation became dire in Saskatchewan because basic supplies like ammunition for hunting, flour and basic medicines could not be brought in.  It was during this desperate time that a group of Christian native people from Norway House realized that, if supplies could not be delivered to both white and native communities before winter, people in the Saskatchewan district would starve, thus adding more deaths to the smallpox plague. A plan was made where a contingent of 20 York boats manned by 160 strong native men would deliver goods to the desperate whites and natives along the Saskatchewan River.  It was a risky venture and one that could cost them their lives if they contracted smallpox on their mission of mercy. They were going into a region where hundreds and even thousands had died from smallpox in recent months.  However, all of these men knew someone had died for them so they could enjoy a great salvation so they too were willing to die for others to bring relief and supplies and to demonstrate the love of God.  The plan was they would never come in personal contact with anyone.  They would deliver the goods on islands or peninsula locations close to communities, then messengers from those communities would come and get the supplies after they left to assure no contact was made.   It was 1880’s “social distancing”.    The Hudson Bay Company helped finance the supplies for this important project.   

Something that took place during one of these difficult times is a limited amount of smallpox vaccine kits were delivered to different locations.  One of the places where vaccines were delivered was Prince Albert.  It is not clear of the vaccines came on this river boat mission or another.  Missionary James Nesbit was one of the recipients of the vaccine which he began to administer to native families.  However, one source says that many died from smallpox before the vaccines arrived.  Mr. Nesbit began to give the vaccine to the Mistawasis Band.  This band was amazed that other bands were devastated and theirs was not affected as badly.   It won great respect toward the Nesbits for their powerful life-saving medicine.  It is a mystery to this day but apparently Nesbit made the allotment of vaccine go farther than it should.  He had some way of stretching the allotment of vaccine to help many more than there was vaccine for.   Some say he extracted blood from himself and others who were inoculated and then injected it to others so the smallpox immunity would take effect. This is only rumour but, whatever he did worked and it saved many lives.  Mr. Nesbit was apparently greatly respected by the native people in the area.  

After 15 years of ministry in the Prince Albert area, Mrs. Nesbit became ill.  She did not recover for weeks and it was summer with fall and winter coming on.  The Manitoba region was the only place to get medical relief.  Passage by Red River cart was again possible, so Mr. Nebit took his wife Mary on an over six-week trip to Winnipeg to get medical help.  Two days after arriving, Mrs. Nesbit left this world to be with her Saviour.  Mr. Nesbit was heartbroken to see his partner in ministry and wife leave him alone.  Eleven days later Mr. Nesbit died of unknown causes.   I will give my assumption of his cause of death.  It was overwork and a grief-broken heart.  His story is a sad one.  He came to Prince Albert to bring the gospel to the native people when there was nothing here except tall pine trees on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River. The Nesbits operated a school and a little church called the Prince Albert Presbyterian Mission that helped educate many boys and girls to read and write. They also ran a small but successful farm operation.  

I have wondered over the last few months since the residential school grave issues have come to light if maybe all the graves are evidence of pandemics that took the lives of so many in past centuries.  The unmarked graves are a compilation of smallpox pandemics, tuberculosis and the Spanish flu after WWI.  Those pandemics produced lots of graves and probably most of them would have had crude basic burials with wooden crosses that disappeared over time, thus all the unmarked graves.   

Samuel Papanekis, who was the son of a pastor in northern Manitoba, led the 160-man crew to deliver goods into pandemic-stricken Saskatchewan, rowing their boats against the current for hundreds of miles. He and others wanted to prove that the love of God went both ways.  They knew that not everything the white man did to the native people was fair or good in the past, but they could forgive and go forward with love, forgiveness and reconciliation.  Christ, not religion, teaches all of these amazing attributes. The Apostle Paul wrote: “To whom you forgive anything, I forgive also: for if I forgave anything , to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:10).  “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do you” (Colossians 3:13).  When you experience eternal forgiveness from God it sets you free and fills you with joy.  

Not everything that happened in the residential schools was good, right or fair.  It is in the past and we must forgive and learn from the mistakes and press on to higher ground.  In my opinion, the one thing we must do at the graves sites is honour them and let them rest in peace until the judgment.  The Bible tells us that at that time all the graves will be opened and all the truth will be known.  Those who have done evil will give an account to the One who will judge every person on earth in perfect righteousness.  I want to challenge everyone out there to think of the good things the residential schools did and please have the courage to share it.  It was not all bad or evil.  There were some bad and some evil for sure and they who are responsible for it will stand before the great judge of all the earth and give an account of their actions, just like you and I will:  John 5:28,29. Verse 28: Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, V 29: and shall come forth; they that have done good, to the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, to the resurrection of damnation.

Romans 2:16:In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.

I Corinthians 4:5: Therefore, judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, which both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.

2 Timothy 4:1: I charge you therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom.

Hebrews 9:27: And as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment. 

You can be assured that those who have done evil will give an account in the day of judgment but we must live now.  We must learn to live in the freedom that Christ offers us with forgiveness and reconciliation.  Do not allow the news media to stir up resentment, anger and hatred that profits no one.  Leave the judgment of the past centuries to God and learn to forgive and press on to new horizons of good things which God will grant us if we will have faith, obey and follow HIM. 

If you have any questions please contact us at or text 306-961-9866.  If you want a free Bible, we will send you one.  Email or text your address. 

The content of this article is solely the personal opinions of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Prince Albert Shopper.

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