Records show 341 student deaths at residential schools in the North
Actual number of deaths could be much higher, says TRC chair Murray Sinclair
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent six years documenting the history of Canada's residential schools, has found that at least 341 students died at residential schools in the North — and 110 remain unnamed.
In its final report, the commission says that between 1867 and 2000, 252 documented residential school students died at schools in the Northwest Territories, 74 died at schools in Yukon, and 15 died at schools in Nunavut. The report classified the schools' locations by today's political boundaries.
In an interview with CBC's Rosemary Barton, TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair said the total number of recorded residential school deaths in Canada — 3,201 — could be an underestimate given poor record keeping, and the real number of deaths could have been five to 10 times higher.
According to the final report, between 1936 and 1944, 200,000 Indian Affairs files were destroyed.
The commission says government and school records failed to report the cause of death in about 43 per cent of cases.
Among cases with a reported cause of death, about half died from tuberculosis. Pneumonia and influenza combined accounted for another 10 per cent of deaths.
'I was one of them that almost died'
"I was one of them that almost died," said Violet Beaulieu, 83, a former residential school student who lives in Fort Resolution, N.W.T.
Beaulieu spent 17 years — from age four to 21 — in the residence at St. Joseph School in Fort Resolution.
During that time, she spent six months in hospital for what she believes was influenza.
"There were five of us in the hospital," she said. "Three of them passed. I pulled through. There were a lot of others that we didn't know."
According to the TRC final report, in 1944, Dr. George Wherrett, a leading public health physician at the time, toured residential schools in the western Arctic. He concluded there was a lack of regular medical examinations of students at the schools.
Beaulieu agrees, saying it took an emergency for students at St. Joseph School to receive medical care.
"I never had any examinations," she said. "I never got any medication, just bed rest."
Beaulieu says she often fainted, and after leaving residential school was diagnosed with anemia.
Adding missing names
One of the TRC's 94 "Calls to Action" asks the federal government to provide funds for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register. The money would allow the centre to add missing names and information to the register as documentation is found.
Beaulieu says she thinks this type of effort would be a waste of time.
"Those parents have passed on years ago," she says. "I think you just let it go."
But more than 60 years later, her time at residential school still haunts her.
"When my mom died, they took us away from our dad, who was a Hudson's Bay manager. He was from Scotland," says Beaulieu.
"My mother wasn't married to my father. What I might have been if I stayed with my dad, you know? That was all taken away from me."
According to the final report, for reconciliation to happen, "There has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change."
The prime minister vowed to accept all of the TRC report's recommendations last week, when speaking at the Assembly of First Nations' Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Que.