In the 1950s, reaching Loon Lake was no easy task. It took Clarence Jaycox two tries to get there, but many people in Loon Lake are grateful that he did.
“My dad really found Loon Lake by accident,” says Forrest Jaycox, Clarence’s son. “He heard of a Cree community in Loon Lake, but he got lost in a blizzard,” while traveling by dog team.
Loon Lake is one of three settlements in Loon River First Nation, just over 160 kilometers north of Slave Lake off Hwy. 88.
Loon Lake is on the shores of Loon Lake, with the Loon River flowing through the community. South of the river, across the road from the church and fire hall is the Clarence Jaycox School. It is an imposing building.
In the 1990s, when Loon River First Nation took over control of the school from Northland School Division, they named it after Clarence Jaycox, says Loon River Chief Ivan Sawan. Loon River wanted to commemorate him. He was a Christian missionary, who brought education to Loon River. He embraced First Nation people.
Better education for its children was one of the reasons that Loon River applied for band status, says a August 14, 1991, Spotlight article called ‘Loon Lake looks forward to band status’.
In the article, Loon Lake elder Felix Noskey is quoted as saying, “It took me a year and a half before I got my status. I did it because I thought my kids could get education.”
Felix was one of four members elected in 1991 to represent Loon Lake’s petition to become a full band.
Behind the school and the band office is a large field, with an open-air cookhouse, horse shoe pit, and a picnic tables.
At the 2019 Loon River Treaty Days, a group of Loon River elders and members, at the picnic tables, agree to be interviewed about Clarence Jaycox. Frank Noskiye, a Loon River elder, does most of the talking in Cree. Another community member, Paul Letender, translates.
“It’s too bad, they (The Leader reporter) can’t understand my Cree words,” says Frank. “I’d fill that book (pointing at the notepad) half full with stories about Clarence Jaycox.”
Before the Jaycoxes arrived this whole area was bush, says Frank, indicating the field, school and band office. The first school was a log building located where the band office and water plant stand. It served as both a school and church.
The first school was founded in 1956, 62 years ago, says one of the people in the group. It was written on a rock outside the “teal school” which replaced it.
The Clarence Jaycox School has 155 students from K-4 (head-start kindergarten) to Grade 12. Four of the teachers at the school are band members.
Mabel Noskiye grew up in Loon River. She is the principal of the school and was the vice-principal for six years.
“Clarence Jaycox started the school, which was a church to begin with,” says Mabel. “My dad says, Clarence Jaycox picked up the kids by wagon to take them to the school.”
The government didn’t initiate the school, chief Sawan says. No one mandated that he come to the area. He was part of the Christian Missionary Alliance. By having this school, many of the elders were saved from the trauma of the residential school system.
Clarence had a significant impact on the community, Sawan says. He came from New York, with his wife, Ruth. They were part of the community, they lived here. They brought the Christian faith to Loon River. A faith that is still strong and positive. While Loon River has its own challenges, the Christian faith and being spared the inter-generational trauma has helped with many things including suicide prevention and economic development.
On the other side of the Loon River, there is a cemetery with low roofs over the graves, says Frank. When the Jaycoxes first arrived they lived near there in a teepee.
On his second attempt, Clarence found Loon Lake, says Forrest. The people in Loon Lake lived by traditional Cree cultural and had no exposure to the gospel.
For about a year, no one understood what Clarence was saying because he preached in English, and they only spoke Cree, says Frank.
“A lot of us here in Loon called Clarence a (Paul struggles to find the right English word to translate from Cree) ‘hypocrite’ Christian, because we didn’t know anything about God,” says Frank. “This man called Clarence, he truly lived it.”
Then Norman Noskiye, Frank’s half-brother and Paul’s wife’s dad returned to the community and translated, says Frank.
Norman spoke Cree, English and French. He’d been educated at residential school. When he returned to Loon Lake, 62 years ago, he translated Jaycox’s sermons. Frank became a Christian, and he hasn’t looked back.
“He had patience,” Frank says. “That’s how Clarence was. It’s truly that God had sent him here. The way he moved and worked for Loon.”
“There’s a verse, ‘Do all things as unto Christ,’” says Forrest. “They (Clarence and Ruth) lived that.”
Both Clarence and Ruth came from New York state. They lived in Canada for a very long time, and became Canadian citizens.
Ruth Jaycox, nee Schenck, was born on August 5, 1924. Clarence over a year later on December 6, 1925.
Clarence was from Carcass Brook, New York, in the Catskills, says Forrest. He grew up in the mountains and money was scarce.
“My mom came from upper middle class,” says Forrest. “She married this hillbilly.”
Forrest used to tease his dad that he married Ruth, to bring new blood into the family tree.
“My mom was an only child,” says Forrest. “She played violin in the Rochester Orchestra, accordion, piano and was very intelligent.”
Clarence was drafted into the US military. He was trained to fight the Japanese, but deployed to Europe. He was a driver for a chaplain.
“Thank God my dad never killed anybody,” says Forrest. “That was nice.”
Clarence and Ruth met at Nyack Missionary Institute in New York.
Ruth graduated with a degree in nursing from the University of Education of the State of New York on June 12, 1947.
Before Loon Lake, Clarence and Ruth were church planters in Fort Nelson Other communities they lived in include Wapiti, Salt Prairie, Little Buffalo, and Peerless Lake.
Clarence was a trailblazer, says Forrest. “He didn’t wait for anybody’s permission. My dad was a believer in education. My dad was all about community development. Gardens, horses, cattle, anything that had four legs and a tail, he’d drive it.”
Clarence taught, drove bus and was a missionary.
“My dad had an incredible work ethic.” says Forrest. “He had no fear. He was very quiet, humble and meek. He was an observer. He was a learner. He was everything. He even ran a store in Peerless Lake.”
“My dad didn’t do it all alone,” says Forrest. “There were other missionaries. Louis Auger and Frankie Noskiye were coworkers.”
“My mom, I would say, was just as committed as my dad,” says Forrest. “My mom was very loving and gracious and borderline a doctor.
“William Noskiye told me, that my dad almost packed up and left after two years. My mom said, ‘we need to stay’. The whole community got saved, even the medicine men.”
“My mom was physically strong,” says Forrest. “She used to pack her own water.”
While they were at Loon Lake, the family consisted of Clarence, Ruth and five children. The family left Loon Lake around ‘61 or ‘62. After Loon Lake, the Jaycoxes moved to Peerless and Chipewyan Lake. The youngest two boys, Forrest and David, were born in Peerless Lake.
Clarence and Ruth received $25 a month from the Alliance mission. This was not enough to raise their brood of children. Clarence and Ruth sacrificed their own resources for the gospel and the community. Loon Lake was a template for what the Jaycoxes did in Peerless Lake.
In the early 1990s, the people of Peerless Lake honoured Clarence and Ruth with a silver tea tray, says Forrest. “My dad was shocked.”
By naming the school after Clarence, the community “honoured my dad because of his dedication to the community,” Forrest says.