Community Memories from Hugh J. Fraser

Memories of a Correspondence School Kid

What did families do to educate their children before the advent of modern technology? Until the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we had not seen anything like the current pandemic, which is causing worldwide shutdowns, so we have little to compare. Like their counterparts in cities and towns, rural areas had schools that children could attend. However, schooling in remote areas was a different matter. This is an account of how a small bush camp was able to provide its children with education in a remote Northern Manitoba setting without modern amenities such as telephone and electricity.

The year is 1953. Mineral exploration in Northern Manitoba has been ongoing since the late 40s. International Nickel Company (INCO) and Noranda Mines are two large mining concerns looking for mineral deposits to develop. Smaller entities like the JK Syndicate are also active in the area. INCO has established a base camp on Wintering Lake close to the Bay Line community of Thicket Portage. Their assay lab is located there to analyze the drill core coming out of various sites of interest. One such site is located at Mystery Lake, a remote camp 35 miles distant from Thicket Portage and 190 miles from the nearest medical aid in The Pas. Senior geologist Sac Crandall and his wife and three children go into this camp on March 24, 1953. The camp is made up of five Arctic-type structures designed by INCO engineering staff and pre-framed by Beaver Lumber Company at The Pas. There are four air carriers in the area. Austin Airways fly a Husky and Norseman most of the year and a Beaver during March and April. Lamb Airways fly a Norseman and a Cessna. Taylor and Central Northern Airways operate Cessna aircraft from Wabowden. People and mail are moved by air, but supplies and equipment are freighted into the Mystery Lake camp over winter roads with two D4 tractor swings operated by Barney Baldwinson out of Thicket Portage.

Although INCO had been in the area since 1946, my father, geologist Hugh Stewart Fraser, first came to the present-day Thompson region in 1950 when he worked for the company part of each winter and as a summer student. Before that, he had gained experience with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). He had attended the University of Manitoba on the Veterans Plan after serving overseas with the RCAF during the Second World War. He lived with my mother Doreen and me in the U of M’s Veterans Village, graduating with the class of 1950. The university mailed out diplomas that year as there was no graduation ceremony due to the 1950 flood.

From 1950 to1953, our family remained in Copper Cliff and Sudbury while my father spent most of his time in and around the future Thompson site. Working “seven days a week” as he describes, Hugh travelled back and forth from Northern Manitoba to Ontario to visit the family only during freeze-ups and break-ups because work could not continue during those times. 

In 1953, Hugh is permanently hired by INCO, Sudbury Division and is sent to Copper Cliff, Ontario only to find himself sent back to Manitoba to work with Sac Crandall. As Crandall’s assistant, Hugh goes into Mystery Lake camp from Thicket Portage. My mother and I are then moved by the company at the end of June, ‘53 from our Copper Cliff apartment to join Hugh at Mystery Lake. We spend a week with the Crandalls. No family accommodation is available for us at the Mystery Lake camp, so we are given a fourteen by sixteen foot tent at the INCO camp on Wintering Lake where we live for approximately six months in a canvas tent pulled over a lumber frame with seven foot walls and a lumber floor. 

As a four year old, I remember the novelty of living under canvas in a camp close to a community where I could watch steam locomotives pull passenger and freight cars into the CN station. That first summer was filled with adventure. The horses used for logging would stamp around the campsite sounding like drums beating. During electrical storms they would rear up and scream in terror as the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled. I was a tow head with blue eyes so I received a lot of attention from people in the camp. On one occasion I strayed a distance from the camp and couldn’t find my way back. I called for my mother and a young Cree girl answered. She was taking a group of children to a canoe pulled up on the lakeshore and she quickly welcomed me. If it hadn’t been for the assay lab manager noticing me getting into that canoe, my life story could have been quite different. As fall turned into winter, I remember going out on the ice in dog sleds with the fishermen. I would be returned to my mother riding on top of a catch of fresh fish. While life was exciting for me, my mother endured being left alone most of the time as my father continued to work at Mystery Lake. The cold weather was unpleasant living in a frame tent and there was no sanitation. Poor sanitation was a problem for the community of Thicket Portage as well and infant mortality resulted in at least six small white coffins being borne past our door to the cemetery that fall. I returned to Copper Cliff with my mother after the Christmas holiday and my brother Stuart was born there in May, 1954.

In late August, 1954 my mother, Stuart and I return to the Mystery Lake Camp. A frame house is constructed for us from salvaged lumber. During that winter the Crandall family is faced with starting their son John in school. The camp has no electricity and no telephone service. There is a regular “sched” by short wave radio used by INCO personnel to communicate with headquarters. Other than radio and mail, there is no connection with the outside world. The Crandalls enrol John in the Manitoba Correspondence School operated by the Manitoba government for remote students. Correspondence courses are self-paced. Materials are sent out by mail and students complete assignments on their own time. This differs from distance learning where students are expected to follow a structure and maintain regular contact with their instructors. In the case of John’s first year of school, his lessons are mailed to his mother who supervises him and sends the completed work back to the Department of Education’s correspondence branch. In the fall of 1955, the two families in the Mystery Lake camp — the Crandalls and the Frasers — each have a school aged child. John is in his second year of school and I am starting my first. Each of us is tutored by his mother through correspondence lessons. 

I remember how I would begin to work as soon as my mother was able to introduce the day’s lessons to me. It then became a competition to see whether I could complete my work before John. Usually, we would finish up during the morning, have lunch, then meet outside. The rest of the day was ours to play and explore. Sometimes John’s twin sisters would bother us, but quite often we were left to our own devices. Our parents had battery operated radios and occasionally we could pull in a broadcast of music from the western provinces’ Departments of Education on CBC Watrous, Saskatchewan. 

In February, 1956 my father is involved with the drilling of the anomaly at Cook’s Lake, and rich deposits are found leading to development of the Thompson nickel mines. By mid-March a camp location at Moak Lake is cleared, and six buildings are moved on skids by Barney Baldwinson’s Cats from Mystery Lake to Moak Lake. 

Our house was moved while my father was working in the bush. I remember standing at the door of the house enjoying the ride and watching him coming out of the trees onto the lake, running after us on his snowshoes and waving his arms. They had forgotten to tell him that the camp was being moved that day. It went to 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit that night. Our family and the Crandalls were warm in a large tent frame structure used as a carpentry shop heated by an oil space heater. Modular buildings fabricated by Butler Manufacturing of the US were being assembled for us by Wells Construction of The Pas, including four houses for families, an office and a generator building. Ours was the last house to be finished, and I remember marvelling at the real kitchen with a propane gas stove, electric fridge and electric light fixtures (electricity supplied by the camp generator). The house, clad in corrugated galvanized steel and sporting a screened-in veranda overlooking the lake, was situated on a sandy shore. There was a large holding tank for water and an indoor bathroom with a vented bucket toilet that was emptied regularly by the “honey wagon” crew who emptied it into a tank on wheels. Heat was provided by an oil furnace. 

June, 1956 sees the arrival of more families in Moak Lake. Jean and two children join INCO engineer Harold Hess in camp. The Thicket Portage lab is moved to Moak Lake, bringing into camp Jim McInnes and his wife Eunice. Eunice is a teacher who undertakes the supervision of six children taking Manitoba government correspondence courses in a new fourteen by sixteen foot lumber frame tent schoolhouse complete with desks and a blackboard. Eunice has a baby so the mothers take turns helping to supervise school. The six students are John Crandall, Sheilagh and Sarah Crandall, Hugh John Fraser, Rick Hess and Mary Beth Hess. Other families arrive in Moak Lake and later relocate to Thompson as the townsite is developed. The Fraser family is one of the last to be moved to Thompson in November, 1959.

I was excited and at the same time terrified at the prospect of attending a “real” school for the first time. I joined my classmates at Number 1 School, later to be named Juniper School. I was placed in grade 5 and quickly learned I would have to adjust to the structure, discipline and rigours of public school. Thompson was a rapidly growing mining community. People came from all over the world. We all struggled to find our places socially. School yard bullying was commonplace as the established leaders challenged the newcomers. Most withstood the test of taunts and beatings but a few who complained to their parents and teachers were regarded as outcasts. I remember one poor soul who was put into hospital several times over the years leading to graduation because he remained an outcast stemming from his first days of schooling in Thompson. The first months were tough. I received my first strapping, bore the brunt of some intense bullying and kept it all to myself. I was gradually accepted and a classmate later told me that it was because I didn’t run to the office or cry to my parents when I got a licking. It sounds awful, but I learned some valuable lessons that followed me into my teaching career. Kids can learn in adverse conditions. Kids learn in different ways and at different paces. Accept kids for who they are. We moved on from Juniper School to Number 2 School, later named Riverside School. During that time, Thompson High School was being built and opened its doors on December 1, 1961. We were moved into the high school with senior grades placed on the main floor and junior high on the second. The high school was expanded over the years and was renamed R D Parker Collegiate in honour of Ralph Douglas Parker, a senior INCO official responsible for overseeing the Thompson project, and someone I remember visiting the Moak Lake Camp in 1957 during the exploration phase. Four more elementary schools were added to complete the School District of Mystery Lake. 

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