Charlie Hunter was one of the children who never came home.
He died in October, 1974, days shy of his 14th birthday, after he fell through ice while attending St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., his sister Joyce Hunter said on Monday after his name appeared on a registry of deceased Indigenous children.
“Those are stories and those are lived experiences,” Ms. Hunter said. “They matter.”
The National Residential School Student Death Register – 2,800 names presented publicly for the first time on a scarlet banner at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau – is a permanent reminder of fatalities as a result of the government-funded education program that spanned more than 100 years and forcibly removed more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their families.
The registry’s creation is a response to a call from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which presented its findings in 2015 after documenting the legacy of the schools including their goal to indoctrinate children and extensive physical and sexual abuse suffered by thousands of students.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), a permanent home for documents and statements gathered by the TRC, says the list includes children who died while attending residential school, as well as those who became sick and died in a medical facility or gravely ill children who died after being sent home.
Charlie lost his life skating with another boy who was partly blind, Ms. Hunter said, adding they were unsupervised at the time.
“That boy fell through the ice and my brother rushed to save him, and in the process of saving him, died," she said.
Some may view the registry as merely “a list of names," Ms. Hunter said, but she stressed the need for a public record.
The registry is far from a complete picture of the number of children who died in the schools. The most accurate number is more than 4,000, said the NCTR, noting the names of approximately 1,600 deceased students are not known.
Extensive research must still be done to fully document the names of all of the lost children, the centre’s director Ry Moran said, noting the process must involve Indigenous communities.
Mr. Moran said he believes the country will never be the same now that 2,800 names have been made public.
“Canada will never be allowed to forget," he said.
“They’ll never be able to forget what happened in these residential schools, the lives that were shortened, the families that were affected and the communities that have been left scarred by this.”
It has been difficult to say with accuracy how many children died in residential schools because death records were “incomplete” and “disrespectful," said Marie Wilson, one of the TRC commissioners.
More than half the time, the cause of death at a residential school was not noted or a child’s full name was not recorded, she said.
Millions of archives, thousands of statements given to the TRC and additional “bits and pieces” have been put together to piece “these little lives back together again," Dr. Wilson said.
Residential schools were state policy and children lost their lives after experiences in these institutions, she said, adding they must be remembered.
“We have to begin by even knowing who they were and where they were,” Dr. Wilson said.
"This is not an issue. These are little lives. These were children.”
Ms. Hunter said she felt her stomach do a somersault when she saw Charlie’s name on the registry for the first time.
“To see him recognized and acknowledged in that way was so deeply profound for me.”