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Saskatchewan's First Teacher

This story was initially published in 2007

On December 10, 1932, Onésime Dorval died at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, after 55 years of mission work in the West. As a young woman Dorval had wanted to become a nun, but her fragile health prevented her from doing so. She vowed that should her health be restored, she would devote her life to God’s work. After an unlikely recovery, Dorval contacted the Oblates, who advised her of the need for missionaries in Canada’s northwest. So, in 1877 Dorval departed from her native province of Quebec for St. Boniface, Manitoba.

St. Antoine School at Batoche, where Dorval taught between 1896 and 1914
St. Antoine School at Batoche, where Dorval taught between 1896 and 1914
© Courtesy of Saskatchewan Archives Board
Dorval stayed in Manitoba for more than two years and then continued to Saskatchewan by Red River cart. The arduous trip took 10 weeks, but Dorval remained cheerful throughout. In her journal she recorded marvelling at the landscape and walking ahead of the caravan to explore and meditate. Between 1881 and 1920, Dorval established schools and taught at St. Laurent de Grandin, Battleford, and Batoche. In addition to teaching in Batoche’s one-room schoolhouse, Dorval worked as a housekeeper for the local priest and provided board to children who lived too far from school to walk.

Often called Saskatchewan’s “first certified teacher,” Dorval was also one of few bilingual teachers in the West. In order to meet the needs of the large Métis population, the 1875 North West Territories Act had guaranteed access to French-language education through a dual French-Catholic and English-Protestant public school system. Dorval played a significant role in sustaining this bilingual system. In 1919, however, Francophone minority education rights were abolished and, until 1960, French teaching was permitted for only one hour each day.

Mademoiselle Dorval
Mademoiselle Dorval
© Parks Canada
Dorval retired at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in 1921. Because she had been donating her entire income to the Oblate fathers, they treated her like a member of the Order and provided for her upon retirement. Dorval’s obituary in the Star Phoenix tells of “her remarkable memory, sound judgment, cheerful disposition and edifying piety.” Dorval’s students remember her as strict but patient. Apparently she served treats after Sunday Mass and tolerated mischievous behaviour in an era when children were expected to be seen and not heard. A devout Roman Catholic, Dorval aimed to “civilize” the Aboriginal and Métis peoples. Although she did not understand their resistance to the values she upheld, evidence shows that Dorval extended generosity and compassion to everyone. Mademoiselle Onésime Dorval became a National Historic Person in 1954.

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