At least 4,000 aboriginal children died in residential schools, commission finds

Posted on January 3, 2014 in Child & Family History – News/Canada
January 3, 2014.   Mark Kennedy, Postmedia News

OTTAWA — Thousands of Canada’s aboriginal children died in residential schools that failed to keep them safe from fires, protected from abusers, and healthy from deadly disease, a commission into the saga has found.

So far, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has determined that more than 4,000 of the school children died.

But that figure is based on partial federal government records, and commission officials expect the number to rise as its researchers get their hands in future months on much more complete files from Library and Archives Canada and elsewhere.

The disturbing discovery has cast a new light on the century-long school system that scarred the country’s First Nations peoples.

Evidence has been compiled that shows residential school children faced a grave risk of death.

“Aboriginal kids’ lives just didn’t seem as worthy as non-aboriginal kids,” Kimberly Murray, executive director of the commission, said in an interview.

“The death rate was much higher than non-indigenous kids.”

The commission has spent the last several years studying a scandal considered by many to be Canada’s greatest historical shame.

Over many decades — from the 1870s to 1996 — 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their families and sent by the federal government to church-run schools, where many faced physical and sexual abuse.

A lawsuit against the federal government and churches resulted in a settlement that included payments to those affected and the creation in 2008 of the commission. Its job is to hold public hearings so people can tell their stories, collect records and establish a national research centre.

The commission has also established “The Missing Children Project” to assemble the names of children who died, how they died, and where they were buried.

The list of names will be contained in a registry available to the public. Murray said the exact number of deceased children will never be known, but she hopes more information will come from churches and provincial files.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface.”

William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada

William James Topley / Library and Archives CanadaStudents pose for an undated photo outside Metlakatla Indian Residential School in Metlakatla, BC.

Many perished in fires — despite repeated warnings in audits that called for fire escapes and sprinklers but were ignored.

“There was report after report talking about how these schools were firetraps,” said Murray.

She said it was well known that schools were “locking kids in their dormitories because they didn’t want them to escape. And if a fire were to break out they couldn’t get out.”

Many schools refused to spend money on fire escapes. Instead, they built poles outside of windows for children to slide down. But the windows were locked, and children were unable to reach the poles.

“It’s amazing that they didn’t make those corrections in those schools. There are just so many deaths that I think could have been prevented if they had done what they were supposed to do.”

Some children died as runaways and were found frozen to death in snowy fields; others who tried to escape their abusers drowned in nearby rivers.

Among the most famous incidents involved the deaths of four boys — Allen Willie, Andrew Paul, Maurice Justin, and Johnny Michael — who fled the Lejac residential school in British Columbia on New Year’s Day, 1937.

It was 30 degrees below zero. They were found frozen to death on a lake. An inquiry at the time found one boy, wearing summer clothes, had “no hat and one rubber missing and his foot bare.”

Handout / Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Handout / Truth and Reconciliation CommissionAn undated photo of residential school students at confirmation class, St. John’s IRS, Wabasca

Murray said these types of deaths were far from rare.

“There were quite a few examples of children who ran away and died.”

Many died from tuberculosis because they were malnourished and were housed in poorly-ventilated buildings.

Some died of suicide, unable to bear the brutality of the schools.

The commission has even heard allegations — unproven by the commission — of manslaughter and murder.

“There are people who have been speaking out who say they’ve seen a child who was beat so brutally that they died. So there is that unanswered question: Whether the abuse was to the extreme that they were coming to their deaths at the hands of their abusers.”

“We have not found any records of confirmed manslaughter or murder but we have had people speak to that. Whether you are going to find that in a document is questionable.”

What happened to the thousands of children who died? Schools and the government would not pay to have bodies shipped back to their families.

And so they were placed in coffins and buried near the schools — some in marked graves, some in unmarked graves. Often, their parents in far-away reserves were never told what happened.

Murray said that although many of the deaths occurred up until the 1950s, children were continuing to lose their lives in more recent years.

“I think people can make it OK in their minds when they tell themselves it happened a really long time ago. I think it makes it easier for them to accept. But that’s not the reality.”

When the commission releases its report — likely by June 2015 — the massive document will chronicle the saga of deceased children.

Murray said the saga has left an “open wound” with First Nations communities.

“We hear from survivors and family members how important it is that they know what happened to their loved ones and to know where their remains are located.”

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3 Responses to “At least 4,000 aboriginal children died in residential schools, commission finds”

  1. Erin Barlow says:

    Needless to say, residential schools are an extremely shameful historical event that occurred in Canada. However, often that is all people want to consider it as. A ‘historical’ event. Events that involve such high levels of discrimination, and abusive control based on white dominance are embarrassing elements of a country’s history, generating an extremely poor reputation. Though Canada has expressed remorse by acknowledging the despicable brutality this event has imposed on the indigenous culture and communities, most want to accept it as a past event. Because residential schools are such an embarrassing act Canada is responsible for, re- living the severity of the event can make people feel as though they cannot move on from it, disassociating themselves with the event all together.“I think people can make it OK in their minds when they tell themselves it happened a really long time ago. I think it makes it easier for them to accept. But that’s not the reality (Kennedy, 2014).” By releasing information surrounding the abuse, the brutal details regarding residential school children’s deaths surface, preventing Canada from simply closing off this historical chapter. Today, when a child is pronounced dead, common rituals often take place in order to honour that child’s life. Specifically when a child, or anyone for that matter, is murdered, it is imperative for the location of the child’s remains to be acknowledged, as well as the details of their passing. This can provide families with a sense of closure, which can be a crucial component when mourning the loss of a loved one, benefiting current and future generations of the indigenous culture. I feel as though Canada’s reluctance to harp on the grueling details of what has taken place in residential schools is a sign of necessary shame. However, out of respect for the indigenous communities, it is important for Canada to provide those families with the elements of closure they deserve.

  2. Discussions around this shameful part of Canadian history – residential schools, is always a trigger for me. This article makes a great example of why. One can only imagine the disturbing information collected by the TRC, which can now be made public. After reading this article, there seems to me to be a trend: missing and murdered Aboriginal children and missing and murdered Aboriginal women. We should not believe that the innate cultural destruction, discrimination, and dominant euro-centric views of Aboriginal culture ended with the closure of the last residential school. Rather, I believe it would be appropriate to consider the long lasting effects of residential schools on the Aboriginal population.

    The effects of residential schools are still prominent, whether or not they are chosen to be recognized as such. I believe that the deaths are continuing still, and are a prominent effect of Residential School Syndrome. The generational degradation of Aboriginal culture has eroded family upbringing, perpetuating lasting effects of residential schools. Given residential school syndrome and the intergenerational degradation, would it not be fair to include the missing and murdered Aboriginal women as victims of residential schools?

  3. rchee says:

    Does this mean that Canada’s “government, RCMP, Churches involved” will have to go to the world criminal court and face the same consequence as others who are guilty of mass killings?? Now more first nation children, who are in federal and/or provincial care are being unaccounted for as their lives end. Will the harper/manning/ reford government be held responsible I ask you?? The government must stop hiding the facts/records and be accountable, and stop the genocide of first nations in Canada.


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