At least 3,000 died in residential schools, research shows
Dormitories for aboriginal children in disgraced system were disease 'breeding grounds'
The Canadian Press
Posted: Feb 18, 2013 12:18 PM ET
Last Updated: Feb 18, 2013 12:32 PM ET
At least 3,000 children, including four under the age of 10 found huddled together in frozen embrace, are now known to have died while they were attending Canada's aboriginal residential schools, according to new unpublished research.From the late 19th century onwards, aboriginal children in Canada were forced to attend government-run residential schools, where they suffered emotional, physical and sometimes sexual abuse at the hands of church teachers (Library & Archives Canada/PA-042133)
While deaths have long been documented as part of the disgraced residential school system, the findings are the result of the first systematic search of government, school and other records.
"These are actual confirmed numbers," Alex Maass, research manager with the Missing Children Project, told The Canadian Press from Vancouver.
"All of them have primary documentation that indicates that there's been a death, when it occurred, what the circumstances were."
The number could rise further as more documents — especially from government archives — come to light.
The largest single killer, by far, was disease.
'The schools were a particular breeding ground for [tuberculosis]. Dormitories were incubation wards.'—Research manager Alex Maass
For decades starting in about 1910, tuberculosis was a consistent killer — in part because of widespread ignorance over how diseases were spread.
"The schools were a particular breeding ground for [tuberculosis]," Maass said. "Dormitories were incubation wards."
The Spanish flu epidemic in 1918-1919 also took a devastating toll on students — and in some cases staff. For example, in one grim three-month period, the disease killed 20 children at a residential school in Spanish, Ont., the records show.
While a statistical analysis has yet to be done, the records examined over the past few years also show children also died of malnutrition or accidents. Schools consistently burned down, killing students and staff. Drownings or exposure were another cause.
In all, about 150,000 First Nations children went through the church-run residential school system, which ran from the 1870s until the 1990s. In many cases, native kids were forced to attend under a deliberate federal policy of "civilizing" Aboriginal Peoples.
Many students were physically, mentally and sexually abused. Some committed suicide. Some died fleeing their schools.
One heart-breaking incident that drew rare media attention at the time involved the deaths of four boys — two aged 8 and two aged 9 — in early January 1937.
A Canadian Press report from Vanderhoof, B.C., describes how the four bodies were found frozen together in slush ice on Fraser Lake, barely a kilometre from home.
The "capless and lightly clad" boys had left an Indian school on the south end of the lake "apparently intent on trekking home to the Nautley Reserve," the article states.
A coroner's inquest later recommended "excessive corporal discipline" of students be "limited."
The records reveal the number of deaths only fell off dramatically after the 1950s, although some fatalities occurred into the 1970s.
"The question I ask myself is: Would I send my child to a private school where there were even a couple of deaths the previous year without looking at it a little bit more closely?" Maass said.
"One wouldn't expect any death rates in private residential schools."
In fact, Maass said, student deaths were so much part of the system, architectural plans for many schools included cemeteries that were laid out in advance of the building.
Maass, who has a background in archeology, said researchers had identified 50 burial sites as part of the project.
About 500 of the victims remain nameless. Documentation of their deaths was contained in Department of Indian Affairs year-end reports based on information from school principals.
The annual death reports were consistently done until 1917, when they abruptly stopped.
"It was obviously a policy not to report them," Maass said.
In the 1990s, thousands of victims sued the Canadian government and the churches that ran the 140 schools. A $1.9-billion settlement of the lawsuit in 2007 prompted an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The research — carried out under the auspices of the commission — has involved combing through more than one million government and other records, including nuns' journal entries.
The longer-term goal is to make the information available at a national research centre.
Latest Ottawa News Headlines
- South Ottawa bridge delay hard to 'swallow'
- A delay in construction for the new Jockvale Bridge has hit a feathery wall, the protected barn swallows nesting at the site. more »
- Ottawa jazz singer Kellylee Evans struck by lightning
- Local jazz singer Kellylee Evans, scheduled to perform at the Ottawa Jazz Festival this week, is recovering at home after her house was struck by lightning two weeks ago. more »
- Canadian Tire Centre replaces Scotiabank Place
- The Ottawa Senators announced Tuesday morning that Scotiabank Place will be renamed the Canadian Tire Centre. more »
- Montreal mayor resigns amid corruption charges
- Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum has resigned in the wake of corruption charges being laid against him, although he maintains he is innocent. more »
Top News Headlines
- Most groups don't want return of Trudeau speaking fees
- Most of the 17 charitable and other organizations that have paid speaking fees to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during his time as an MP say they aren't interested in having their fees returned, despite Trudeau's offer on the weekend to reimburse any organization unhappy with his services. more »
- G8 leaders agree to 7-point plan on Syria as summit wraps
- Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the other G8 leaders reach a seven-point plan aimed at stopping the conflict in Syria, wrapping up a two-day summit in Northern Ireland following talks on trade, tax evasion, poverty and terrorism. more »
- Are e-cigarettes safe to puff?
- As electronic or e-cigarettes grow in popularity, some health advocates want them to be regulated. more »
- In Bangladesh's garment trade, empowerment comes at $20 a week
- The pay is laughable by Western standards, and the shantytowns of Dhaka offer a difficult life. But the surge of mostly young women into the country's increasingly important clothing industry is having a profound change on this largely Islamic society, Margaret Evans writes. more »
- Ottawa craft beer breweries fuel Ontario boom
- Mike Fisher, Carrie Underwood selling Ottawa dream home
- Toronto's Dufferin Street named worst Ontario road again
- Ontario says no to Kettle Island interprovincial bridge
- The Spartan Race in 90 seconds
- Former McGuinty staffer grilled about gas plants
- Toronto Mayor Rob Ford needs security, brother says
- Woman charged after drink tossed at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
- G8 leaders agree to 7-point plan on Syria as summit wraps