The night the residential school burned to the ground — and the students cheered

A residential school survivor says a fire that burned down the Thunderchild Indian Residential School was deliberately set by students — and she's happy it happened.

Saskatchewan survivor of Thunderchild school believes students started the 1948 fire

Thunderchild Indian Residential School near Delmas, Sask., had 117 students when it burned down in 1948. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

The first thing Jenny Spyglass remembers is the shouting. There was a fire, she was told, and she needed to get out — now.

It was 1948, and smoke was pouring out of the basement of the Thunderchild Indian Residential School.

The large dormitory room filled with girls getting ready for bed exploded into chaos. Seven-year-old Spyglass was given a thin blanket and was marched down the fire escape into a January night with temperatures reaching –35 C.

Flames quickly consumed the old wooden building. The large barrel of diesel and lubricating oil in the basement didn't help. The fire was so large, it could be seen 65 kilometres away.

There were no casualties because they were all prepared.— Milton Tootoosis

It would be understandable if the students were frightened that night.

But instead of crying, many students started cheering.

Now 77, Spyglass, like other survivors, is convinced that boys at the school intentionally set the fire that burned the school to the ground.

And she's glad they did.

Residential school survivor Jenny Spyglass says she's glad the residential school burned down. (David Shield/CBC)

Stories of abuse, overcrowding and death

The story of the Thunderchild residential school is a familiar one.

Established in 1901 by the Roman Catholic Church just outside the village of Delmas, about 30 kilometres west of North Battleford in central Saskatchewan, the school was designed to house and educate First Nations children in the area.  

However, there were problems.

Milton Tootoosis, historian and headman of the Poundmaker First Nation, said many stories of abuse at Thunderchild came out during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.

The TRC spent six years documenting Canada's residential school legacy — a government-funded, church-operated assimilation program from the 1870s to 1996 — and issued 94 recommendations, including several involving child-welfare reform.

Tootoosis's parents went to the Thunderchild school in the 1940s. When he asked his father about the school, he would immediately fall silent.

"It's a way they survived," Tootoosis said. "They didn't want their children to know what really went on in those schools, to protect them from the shock and likely the anger we would have experienced."

The Thunderchild residential school operated from 1901 to 1948 near Delmas, Sask. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

Death rates were high in the overcrowded school, according to Shattering the Silence: The Hidden History of Residential Schools in Saskatchewan, a report written by the University of Regina's faculty of education.

According to a paper prepared for the Law Commission of Canada, 15 per cent of the students at the school died in 1928, a rate of up to five times the provincial average for non-First Nations students.

A survivor and a brother lost

Spyglass was three years old when a black Jeep drove up to her family's home on the Mosquito-Grizzly Bear's Head-Lean Man First Nation.

Indian Agents and a priest "were pointing their fingers at me, and my mom started crying," she said. "I should have had the feeling that something was wrong."

She said the agents took her and threw her into the back of the vehicle. Dust caught in her throat as she bounced along the gravel road.

"I yelled and I screamed and I fought," she said. "That didn't help."

She would spend the next three and a half years at the school. She said life there was hellish.

"It's hard when I talk about it. Sometimes I can't sleep."

A group of parents camp near the Thunderchild school as they visit their children. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

One day at the school's church, she saw her brothers sitting on the boys' side of the aisle. She sprinted over to them for a hug. She hadn't seen them in weeks. She said the nuns caught her and threw her into the school's basement for the rest of the day.

"I thought they were going to leave me to die," she said. "It was no use crying. They just left me."

She said food at the school was inadequate.

"I didn't like dry bread, dry bannock. That's how we ate," she said. "I didn't know what a chocolate bar was — or an apple or an orange or a banana."

Over the years, Spyglass said most of her brothers and sisters ran away from the school, except her older brother, Reggie. He died at the school after contracting tuberculosis.

"Reggie was my best friend," she said. "Reggie was my playmate. He was everything to me."

She said the strict conditions at the school made it impossible to mourn.

"I didn't know how to grieve," she said. "I didn't know what to do."

The original residential school building. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

The warning spread quickly

Spyglass and Tootoosis said the fire at the school was carefully planned by students.

Word quietly spread from student to student that night, telling everyone to get ready. Tootoosis said the boys were told to go to sleep with their clothes on and cover up with a blanket, so they would be ready once the fire started.

"There were no casualties because they were all prepared," Tootoosis said.

According to an RCMP investigation report from the time, the fire started in a cupboard where custodians kept their tools. The nun who discovered the fire tried to throw water on it but was forced out by thick black smoke.

The provincial fire investigator believed the fire might have been set intentionally and asked RCMP to question four teenage boys. However, the boys claimed they had nothing to do with the fire, and the case was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.

Once outside, Spyglass and some of the other children were taken to a garage to spend the night.

I hated school right through my teenage years. I would make an excuse to go to the washroom outside and from there I would take off.— Jenny Spyglass

In the morning, she was taken back to her home and her family.

"From far away, I saw a young man running towards us," she said. "When I recognized it was my big brother Martin, I threw my little blanket away and my big brother carried me home."

However, life wasn't easy for Spyglass once she got home.

"All I did was cry," she said. "I told my mom never to let me go anywhere."

Finding culture and forgiveness

She began to attend a day school at the nearby Red Pheasant First Nation. Whenever she heard that the local Indian Agent was visiting her school, she would hide in the bushes, terrified she would be taken from her family again.

"I hated school right through my teenage years," she said. "I would make an excuse to go to the washroom outside and from there I would take off."

She dropped out of school after finishing Grade 10.

"I started drinking, and I didn't like my life," she said.

Jenny Spyglass and her husband Mervin Cox in the mid-1970s. (Submitted by Jenny Spyglass)

Eventually, she got married and had children. She started working at a school. She even got into politics, serving as a band councillor for 21 years and chief for four years — the first woman to hold that office in the North Battleford area.

However, it wasn't until she discovered her culture that she was able to feel happy. After going to her first round dance, she bought a sewing machine and made her first dress.

"I was dancing, and I felt peace," she said. "Those people that hurt me so much, I forgave them."

These days, she works as an elder at many schools in the North Battleford area. She said it's been an important part of her healing.

"I feel it within my heart," she said. "I put my arms around them. I cry with them."

Still, Spyglass doesn't mourn the Thunderchild Indian Residential School. There's no more than an empty field now where it once stood.

"They should have burned it a long time ago," she said. "Maybe then my brother would be still alive."

About the Author

David Shield

David Shield is a web writer for CBC Saskatoon.