Skip to main content
from the archives

As many as half of the First Nations children who attended the early years of residential schools died of tuberculosis, despite repeated warnings to the federal government that overcrowding, poor sanitation and a lack of medical care were creating a toxic breeding ground for the rapid spread of the disease, documents show.

A Globe and Mail examination of documents in the National Archives reveals that children continued to die from tuberculosis at alarming rates for at least four decades after a senior official at the Department of Indian Affairs initially warned in 1907 that schools were making no effort to separate healthy children from those sick with the highly contagious disease.

Peter Bryce, the department's chief medical officer, visited 15 Western Canadian residential schools and found at least 24 per cent of students had died from tuberculosis over a 14-year period. The report suggested the numbers could be higher, noting that in one school alone, the death toll reached 69 per cent.

With less than four months to go before Ottawa officially settles out of court with most former students, a group calling itself the Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared Residential School Children is urging the government to acknowledge this period in the tragic residential-schools saga - and not just the better-known cases of physical and sexual abuse.

Last week, Liberal MP Gary Merasty wrote to Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice asking the government to look into the concerns. Mr. Prentice’s spokesman, Bill Rogers, told The Globe that departmental officials have been asked to meet with Indigenous groups.

Some of their stories, including tales of children buried in unmarked graves beside the schools, are told in a new documentary by Kevin Annett, a former United Church minister, titled Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada's Genocide.

Mr. Annett, as well as some academics, argue that the government's handling, combined with Canada's official policy of removing children from their homes for 10 months each year to attend distant schools, does indeed fit the United Nations definition of genocide.

The UN definition, adopted after the Second World War, lists five possible acts that qualify as genocide, of which killing is only one. The fifth act is described as "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

But transcripts of debates in 1952 of the House of Commons external affairs committee, reviewed by The Globe, show public servants advised politicians not to enshrine a definition of genocide into law, despite Canada's promise internationally to do so.

In 2000, four years after the last residential school closed, the government finally adopted a limited definition of genocide, excluding the line about forcible transfer of children. But courts have rejected Indigenous claims of genocide against Ottawa and the churches because Canada had no law banning genocide while the schools were operating.

“It’s another crime,” said Roland Chrisjohn, a professor of First Nations studies at St. Thomas University who has written extensively on the subject. “Canada can’t define genocide to suit its own purposes.”

Few argue that the policy was genocidal in the Nazi sense of deliberately killing people. Rather, the focus was on killing First Nations’ cultures in the name of assimilation, said John Milloy, a Trent University professor.

“The purpose of the [federal government’s] policy is to eradicate Indians as a cultural group,” said Prof. Milloy, who has had more access to government files on the subject than any other researcher. “If genocide has to do with destroying a people’s culture, this is genocidal, no doubt about it. But to call it genocidal is to misunderstand how the system works.”

Whatever the definition, there is no disputing the deadly swath tuberculosis cut through native schools.

Dr. Bryce followed up his 1907 report with a second one two years later, this time on the toll TB was taking in Alberta residential schools. He recommended that Ottawa take over responsibility of the schools from church control.

The Globe has uncovered letters in the archives showing that many others issued similar warnings. Just a few months after Dr. Bryce's 1909 report, the department's Indian agent for Duck Lake, Sask., wrote to his Ottawa colleagues: "The department should realize that under present circumstances about one-half of the children who are sent to the Duck Lake boarding school die before the age of 18, or very shortly afterward."

Another document published in 1914 shows Dr. Bryce's findings were accepted by Duncan Campbell Scott, the most influential senior Indian Affairs official of the period. "It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein," Mr. Scott wrote in an essay.

But one of the documents obtained by The Globe reveals Mr. Scott's department rejected the doctor's recommendations because the government did not want to upset the churches that ran the schools.

The residential schools were an extension of religious missionary work. They started receiving federal support in 1874 as part of Canada’s campaign to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Christian society by obliterating their language, religion and culture. Well over 100,000 First Nations children passed through the schools, most of which were closed in the mid-1970s.

The tuberculosis problem was symptomatic of the deplorable living conditions for the thousands of children uprooted from their communities and placed in the care of strangers. Tuberculosis is one of the deadliest infectious diseases, entering the body through breathing and infecting the lungs. It can then spread to the central nervous system, bones and joints, according to the Canadian Lung Association.

In May, 1930, at the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia, officials were coping with an outbreak of tuberculosis seven months after the facility opened. But it was the arrival several years later of James Paul, a new student with an advanced case of tuberculosis, that raised the ire of the school's visiting physician.

"Evidently somebody has mistaken our residential school for a TB sanatorium," D. F. MacInnis says in a letter to Indian Affairs.

Later, Dr. MacInnis wrote to the school principal: "We are apparently getting all the advanced TB cases and syphilities in the three provinces shipped into our school and apparently there is no way left for us to keep them out. It is very unfair to the children who are clean and well."

Although most students from this period are no longer alive, some who attended later recall sharing sleeping quarters with dying children.

"I've known some students that died there and I don't know how they died. All we know is we had their funeral service," said Harry Lucas, 66, who attended Christie Indian Residential on Vancouver Island from 1948 to 1958.

"There were quite a few grave sites there that I always questioned. We were able to sleep next to a person that was dying. They didn't put them away in separate rooms. That was always kind of spooky for me."

Ted Quewezance, the executive director of the National Residential School Survivors Society, attended Gordon Residential School and St. Philip Residential School in Saskatchewan from 1960 to 1969. He said he has spoken to thousands of former students across Canada.

"We'd see [funerals]monthly," he said. "We were never able to ask what they were. It's no different right across the country. There's even some graves unmarked. Kids were buried at the school, but now we're talking about how do we bring our survivors home?"

The Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared Residential School Children claims thousands of children are buried in unmarked graves near the schools. Many of their stories are contained in the documentary by Mr. Annett, who says he was ousted from the United Church in 1995 after raising concerns about the church's residential-school history.

(The United Church rejects Mr. Annett's version of events, pointing to a three-week termination hearing in which several witnesses said he was a confrontational figure who was a poor manager of his Port Alberni church.)

James Scott of the United Church said there is relatively little solid information on deaths at the schools because archivists have been so focused on researching claims of living former students.

"My sense is that the more we find out about [the schools] the deeper our understanding of the catastrophic impact of the residential schools on aboriginal people, on their families and their culture," he said.

Bede Hubbard of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the Roman Catholic Church, which ran most of the schools, noted that previous research has shown the churches made many pleas to Ottawa for more money to improve standards.

"I didn't realize that the rates of tuberculosis were that high. In the 1930s, tuberculosis was rampant in Canada itself, so it shouldn't be surprising then that it was also a problem in the residential schools."

Prof. Milloy of Trent University is the only outsider to have accessed the locked vault of Indian Affairs records through his role as a senior researcher for the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

In 1999, he published his research in a book titled A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System. Prof. Milloy expressed discomfort with the campaign of Mr. Annett and others to introduce language such as genocide and "aboriginal holocaust."

What government and church records do show, he said, is that the deaths were primarily due to the policy of paying churches on a per-capita basis to run the schools. Numerous letters indicate that because of the funding policy, churches would admit sick children and refuse to send ailing ones home. Pleas to the department for more funding fell on deaf ears.

"That's why there's so many kids sleeping in so few beds in so many dormitories across the country," Prof. Milloy said. "It has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of 'Let's get them sick with tuberculosis and wipe them out as a species on the earth.' It's the fact that the feds won't spend any money on this, and that's what it leads to."

As for Dr. Bryce, the man who first sounded the alarm, he was shuffled to another department. The position of chief medical officer was terminated and the government appears to have made no further effort to gather statistics on deaths at the schools. Ottawa did not take over control of all schools until 1969.

In 1922, after he retired, Dr. Bryce penned a diatribe against Ottawa's lack of response to his reports.

The title: The Story of a National Crime.



Started before Confederation as part of religious missionary work, residential schools originally focused on replacing Indigenous beliefs with Christianity. More than 70 per cent of the schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church; the rest by the Anglican and United Churches.


The federal government started funding residential schools in 1874, using American Industrial Schools as the model for introducing manual labour and agricultural skills to First Nations peoples. To encourage children to use English and French, they were physically punished for speaking their own languages.


There were 72 residential schools in 1948 and 9,368 students. Ottawa took full control of the schools in 1969 and most were closed during the 1970s. The last school shut its doors in 1996.


Stories of physical and sexual abuse began to emerge in the 1980s, and became major news when Manitoba Chief Phil Fontaine, now the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, went public with his story of sexual abuse as a student.

In April of 2006, Ottawa reached a $1.9-billion agreement with former students to settle their class-action lawsuits out of court and compensate for the loss of language and culture. Further money has been set aside to settle claims of physical and sexual abuse. Students have until Aug. 20 to accept the package. Bill Curry


January, 1919

Duncan Campbell Scott, a senior Indian Affairs official, talks about the inadequacy of the school buildings in a memorandum to Arthur Meighen, then Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. "They were unsanitary and they were undoubtedly chargeable with a very high death rate among the pupils."

December, 1920

A report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs says 33 students at the Sarcee school near Calgary are afflicted with tuberculosis.

February, 1925

W.M. Graham, Indian Commissioner for Saskatchewan, says in a letter to Mr. Scott: "We will have to do something to stop this indiscriminate admission of children without first passing a medical exam. ... I quite often hear from the Indians that they do not want to send their children to school as it is a place where they are sent to die."

February, 1925

Russell T. Ferrier, Superintendent of Indian Education, writes to Indian commissioners and agents, saying each child should be pronounced fit by a medical officer before being admitted to a school. "When a pupil's health becomes a matter of concern soon after admission, the consequent parental alarm and distrust militates against successful recruiting."

March, 1932

The Department of Indian Affairs announces that as a result of spending cutbacks, it cannot authorize admitting children with tuberculosis to a sanatorium or hospital unless the patient requires “care for relief of actual suffering.” Karen Howlett

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe