An abandoned log schoolhouse in Jean Marie River, N.W.T., built by the First Nation more than 60 years ago to avoid having to send their youngest children away to residential school, will soon become a museum — if people there have their way.

Jean Marie River is located about 500 kilometres west of Yellowknife and has a population of about 60.

The community built the school in 1951. Then-Chief Louie Norwegian came up with the idea after his young son, who later died by suicide, was taken away to residential school in Fort Providence.

"We probably would have been at [residential school] when we were five if it weren't for them." - Marilyn Hardisty

"My father cried and he heard the women in the community crying," said Chief Gladys Norwegian, daughter of the former chief.

"He knew they had to do something to keep the kids in the community." 

Norwegian says her father and other leaders in the community talked to their Member of Parliament and persuaded him that the community should be allowed to build its own school.

Local people sold lumber and fish to raise money to purchase the logs for the school. Teachers, on the other hand, were harder to come by.

school house jean marie river

Local people sold lumber and fish to raise money to purchase the logs for the school. (submitted)

An anthropologist who was studying the way of life in the community — Teresa Carterette — volunteered to teach the school's first year. After that, Norwegian says community members with some western education — including her own mother with a Grade 2 education — taught the children using textbooks mailed from southern Canada. Eventually, the government started providing staff.

Norwegian attended the school until Grade 6, after which, like all students, she had to go to residential school outside the community.

Marilyn Hardisty was also a student at the log schoolhouse. She now works for the band and is trying to raise funds to convert the old school into a museum.

"My father is one of the men who helped raise money to build this school and I'm proud they were able to make it a reality," she said.

Jean Marie River school photo

A framed photo shows students studying outside in Jean Marie River in 1951. The community is planning to turn it into a museum. (Marc Winkler/CBC)

"We probably would have been at LaPointe Hall [the residential school hostel in Fort Simpson] when we were five if it weren't for them. I'm really glad I spent my childhood here."

More than 100 children were educated there until a new school was constructed in the 1980s. 

Hardisty says the museum will show what can be accomplished if everyone works together for the good of the community.

"I don't want to see it torn down, it's a visual reminder of what our elders did."

This summer, a contractor came to town to restore some of the rotten logs, but there's still more work to do. Norwegian says there's asbestos inside that needs to be dealt with, then all the old report cards, desks, and other school supplies need to be sorted out and displayed.

In addition to telling the story of the school, they plan to have the museum display old hunting and trapping tools and also house a cafe and craft shop.

children log schoolhouse jean marie river

Children pose outside the log schoolhouse in this undated photo. The school went until Grade 6, after which students had to go to residential school outside the community. (submitted)