As many as half of the aboriginal 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 native 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 native 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 native 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 native culture 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."Report Typo/Error