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Students in class at a residential school in Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan
Students in class at a residential school in Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan

Missing children, unmarked burials a legacy of residential schools Add to ...

“Death cast a long shadow over Canada’s residential schools.”

So concludes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final, exhaustive report on the state-funded, church-run system that, for more than a century, took First Nation children from parents, home and community and placed them in poorly built, poorly run and often dangerous institutions, where at least 3,200 of them died – a death rate far beyond anything in comparable public schools.

And the true number could be many times as large, thanks to shoddy record keeping and the sheer indifference of those who were charged with the children’s care. Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired the commission, believes that actual total of dead or missing students could be at least twice, and possibly five to 10 times the recorded number.

Poorly nourished, strictly disciplined, sometimes physically or sexually abused, children at the schools developed tuberculosis or other infections. They committed suicide. They died in accidents or simply ran away and were never seen or heard from again.

“The failure to establish and enforce adequate standards, coupled with the failure to adequately fund the schools, resulted in unnecessarily high death rates at residential schools,” the report drily but damningly concludes.

Authorities routinely failed to report deaths to the authorities, or even to the parents of the lost child. Those who died were commonly buried in cemeteries on school grounds that today are unidentified or neglected.

Those who survived often left the schools shattered. “Children who were abused in the schools sometimes went on to abuse others,” the report observed. “Many students who spoke to the commission said they developed addictions as a means of coping. Students who were treated and punished like prisoners in the schools often graduated to real prisons. For many, the path from residential school to prison was a short one.”

This is the truth of those schools. Reconciliation will begin by educating a new generation about what the commission declares was nothing less than an attempted cultural genocide. To honour those First Nations students who lost their lives, the commission urges the federal government to, among other things, create a registry of residential-school cemeteries; to, where possible, identify, mark and commemorate the lives of those who lie buried; and to establish a National Residential School Student Death Register

At a gathering to mark the completion of the commission’s work, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed his government to “a total renewal of the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples.” Speaking with emotion, he pledged: “I give you my word that we will renew and respect that relationship.”

If so, this commission will be the first to do more than simply mark the unhappy legacy of this country’s treatment of First Nations, the first whose many recommendations were actually acted on.

The TRC’s hopeful assertion might yet prove prophetic: “For Canadians from all walks of life, reconciliation offers a new way of living together.”

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The numbers

“The most basic of questions about missing children – Who died? Why did they die? Where are they buried? – have never been addressed or comprehensively documented by the Canadian government.” - TRC report

1933 – The year of a federal government policy report outlining when school documents could be destroyed; school quarterly reports could be destroyed after five years; records of accidents could be destroyed after 10 years.

200,000 – number of Indian Affairs files destroyed between 1936 and 1944

How many died?

3,201

32 – percentage of deaths not recorded

2,434 (total deaths 1867-1939)

691 (total deaths 1940-2000)

76 (Year unknown/not recorded)

Gender

747– Number of deaths (23 per cent) for which gender was not reported

1,203 – Named and unnamed female deaths (1867-2000)

1,049 – Named and unnamed male deaths (1867-2000)

26 – Named and unnamed female deaths for which there is no known date

41 – Named and unnamed male deaths for which there is no known date

What did they die from

49– percentage of student deaths where cause of death was not recorded.

896 – Number of deaths attributed to tuberculosis (48 per cent) between 1867-2000 where there is a reported cause of death

1941-1945 – Period during which death rate for named and unnamed students was 4.9-times higher than death rate for Canadian school-aged children.

1926-1950 – Period during which, in any given five-year period, the residential-school death rate was at least double the rate for the five- to 14-year-old cohort of the general population

194 – Students who died as a result of suicide and accidents, including 33 who died while running away

Where are they buried

43 – percentage of named and unnamed registers for which there is no known location of death.

1,810 – number of deaths for which there is a known location: School (832), hospital (427), sanatorium (43), home (418) and other non-school (90)

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Survivors

“There was a death every month on the girls’ side and some of the boys went also. We were always taken to see the girls who had died. The Sisters invariably had them dressed in light blue and they always looked so peaceful and angelic. We were led to believe that their souls had gone to heaven, and this would somehow lessen the grief and sadness we felt in the loss of one of our little schoolmates.”

Louise Moine, Qu’Appelle, Sask.

“The silent killer TB showed up amongst the enrolment. Some quiet, inoffensive lad would grow unusually quiet and listless. … As his creeping, insidious disease came over him, he began to lose interest in all boyish activity. He coughed frequently and his energy was sapped away. His chums tried to interest him in their games and outings, but he only smiled wanly and told them to leave him out. He didn’t feel like it.”

Enos Montour, Muncey, Ont.

“And I always blamed the residential school for killing my brother. Dalton was his name. I never, I never, I never ever forgave them. I don’t know whether my dad and mother ever knew how he died, but I never found out. But I know that he died over there. They allowed me to [go] and see him once before he died, and he didn’t even know me. He was a little guy, laying in the bed in the infirmary, dying, and I didn’t know ’til he died. You know that’s, that was the end of my education.”

Ray Silver, Port Alberni, B.C.

“I remember the one young fellow that hung himself in the gym, and they brought us in there, and showed, showed us, as kids, and they just left him hanging there, and, like, what was that supposed to teach us? You know I’m fifty-five years old, and I still remember that, and that’s one thing out of that school that I remember.”

Antonette White, Kuper Island, B.C.

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