Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: October 2017

Ile A La Crosse Sara Riel

Sara Riel was Saskatchewan’s first Métis Grey Nun

She’s usually given only a footnote in Saskatchewan history. And even when she is mentioned, she’s identified as the sister of her older, more famous brother.

But Sara Riel was the first Métis Grey Nun in Saskatchewan.

Born at Red River in 1848, four years after her brother Louis, Sara was educated at the Sisters of Charity boarding school (popularly known as the Grey Nuns because of their habit). Her religious training was inspired by the intense Catholic faith of the Riel home — and her parents’ expectations for their children.

But whereas Louis chose not to become a priest, Sara took her vows in March 1868 and served the church for the next 15 years. The story of her life as a Grey Nun is found today in the letters she exchanged with her family, especially Louis.

In 1871, Sara volunteered to work at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste mission on Lac Île-à-la-Crosse (known to the Cree as sākitawāhk) in present-day northwestern Saskatchewan. Her paternal grandparents had met and married in the predominantly Métis community and her father, Jean-Louis Riel, was born there.

But in relocating to Île-à-la-Crosse, Sara effectively left behind her family at Red River and embraced a life of service and sacrifice.

Île-à-la-Crosse was established in 1776 when Montreal pedlars pushed the fur trade up the Churchill (English) River. Seventy years later, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) built a mission there to proselytize to the local Cree, Dene, and Métis populations.

Île-à-la-Crosse quickly emerged as the administrative centre for pastoral activities throughout the vast region. In fact, four future bishops (Taché, Laflèche, Grandin, and Faraud) would serve the growing mission — leading to the nickname ‘nursery of the bishops.’

But it was the Grey Nuns, arriving at Île-à-la-Crosse in October 1860, who were vital to the mission’s day-to-day activities.

The sisters’ headquarters, named Hôpital Saint-Bruno, was an impressive two-storey building, featuring a classroom and the region’s first hospital. The day the Grey Nuns arrived, a sick young boy became their first patient.

The Grey Nuns quickly opened a residential school in the building (École Sainte Famille) and enroled their first pupils. They also ran an orphanage.

These church-run institutions were accepted by the local Métis for the support and benefits they provided to the region’s families. The spiritual bond between the mission and the community was further reinforced when Métis parents asked members of the religious orders to stand as godparents to their children.

Sister Sara Riel readily fit into this religious community and worked tirelessly to facilitate its work. She told her brother in one letter how she looked forward to the annual missions among the Indigenous population and took delight in their first communion.

Indeed, her devotion to the church and its teachings was irrevocably strengthened in the fall of 1872 when she fell gravely ill and lingered near death. Sara was given the Last Rites, but then made a complete — seemingly miraculous — recovery after praying to the Blessed Marguerite-Marie of Alacoque.

Thereafter, she took the name, Sister Marguerite-Marie. She also wanted to use her Manitoba scrip grant (made available to Métis living in the province in 1870) to fund the care of orphan children.

Because of Riel’s English proficiency (she was conversant in several languages), she often served as a liaison between the mission and the nearby Hudson’s Bay Company post. She also offered the first class in English at the school in order to demonstrate to the federal government the value of the mission.

Life at the Île-à-la-Crosse mission, though, was not easy. Riel spoke of loneliness and isolation in her letters — compounded by the fact that mail arrived only twice a year. She once complained to Louis about his failure to write: “Allow me, beloved brother, to tell you how cruel your silence is.”

There were also times when the fishery failed and food was scarce. And even though she found time to do some sketching, she worked long hours, punctuated by the drudgery of chores. She particularly disliked laundry day, when the bed linen would be hung throughout the living quarters to dry.

Riel’s commitment and devotion, however, never wavered. That’s why, according to her mother superior, the community “loved and respected” her.

When she died from tuberculosis on Dec. 27, 1883, most of Île-à-la-Crosse turned out for her funeral mass. Sara Riel was 35.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Sara Riel’s sketch of Île-à-la-Crosse” 

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Waskesiu Graves, Drowning Deaths

Freak storm on Lake Waskesiu left four dead

Isabella Merrill never forgot ‘the storm.’

In the fall of 1927, she and her husband Harry, a Prince Albert National Park warden, were living in a cabin on the east shore of Waskesiu Lake.

One day, a fierce storm swept across the lake that seemed to blow itself out as quickly as it came up. When interviewed 60 years later, Isabella vividly recalled the spray from the breakers washing over her cabin roof.

Four people were out on the lake when the freak storm hit.

Reuben Dahl, Emile Faber and his wife Mildred, and Emile’s brother Joseph were on their way to Montreal Lake to build some fishing shacks for R.D. Brooks that winter. They were camped at the mouth of the Waskesiu River, waiting for freeze-up so they could take up freight.

The day of the storm, they were apparently coming across the lake by canoe to visit the Pease home (in present-day Waskesiu) to get supplies or mail.

When they didn’t show up at Montreal Lake, three weeks after their expected arrival, the company contacted Rueben’s parents, Alex and Mary Dahl, of Fenton, Saskatchewan. That was late November.

Harry Merrell and fellow park warden Harry Genge were given the grisly chore of trying to find the four missing people in January 1928. They discovered the party’s tent and equipment near the mouth of the river. They also stumbled upon a canoe full of ice.

But even though they probed the ice here and there, sometimes chipping away with axes, they never located the bodies.

The search resumed in the spring. In early May, Reuben’s father Alex and a friend, a psychic, started scanning from shore the still-frozen lake near the Waskesiu River.

At one point, Alex climbed a tree and spotted something dark in the thawing ice. He carefully made his way out to the place, only to be confronted by his dead son’s body. The clothes confirmed that it was the 23-year-old Reuben. The other three missing were found nearby.

The four bodies were buried on a small ridge, along the east shore of the lake, between the townsite and the Waskesiu river. It’s not known whether permission was secured from the Canadian Parks department. But it was the right thing to do — in a lovely spot near to where they had tragically lost their lives.

The four graves were marked with simple wooden crosses. Then, around 1935, Jim Manson, Reuben’s brother-in law (husband of Annie), visited the site and planted a small spruce tree as part of the memorial.

Thousands of people, on their way along the Heart Lakes road, probably drove by the gravesite. People travelling by boat would also have seen the four markers on the slight rise above the lake.

But two decades after the burial, the Parks department found the graves in the way of a new development. In order to ease growing congestion in Waskesiu, Ottawa approved a new auto bungalow camp just north of the townsite in 1948. The graves were in the middle of the new site along the proposed road allowance.

The Parks department wanted construction of what would become known as the Kapasawin Bungalows to get underway that fall. It was consequently decided to remove the four bodies in September 1948 and reinter them at St. Christopher’s Anglican cemetery at Christopher Lake — without informing the families. Ironically, it was only when Hector Dahl (born in the spring of 1927) pulled over to the side of the road out of respect for a funeral procession that he learned that his older brother Reuben’s body and the three others were being moved. Embarrassed Parks officials later apologized for the oversight.

Fortunately, the memorial tree at the gravesite was never touched. And it still stands there today on the slight ridge just beyond the parking lot at the Kapasawin Bungalows office.

Generations of families, staying at Kapasawin, have walked by the tree, unaware of its significance — unless told by the former proprietors.

Meanwhile, people who have been coming to the park for years might know the story of the drownings, but the details are often fuzzy or inaccurate.

That’s a shame.

There needs to be a plaque at the Kapasawin tree that names the four people who lost their lives in the lake and explains why they were once buried there.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: The four drowning victims were buried on the east shore of Lake Waskesiu in 1928.  
Photo Source:Waskesiu Memories, V. 3

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.