Why it's difficult to put a number on how many children died at residential schools

While many are eager to raise awareness and make shows of support, navigating the different numbers circulating is a challenge. Records held by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation show thousands of children never made it home from residential school, but a full account will take time and effort.

It's 'just the start' of this research, says National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation archivist

Lance Haymond, chief of the Kebaowek First Nation, with a sign erected in response to the growing number of searches at former residential school sites. While it's clear from records held by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation that thousands of children never made it home, CBC News has not been able to verify the accuracy of this number or others circulating online. (Submitted by Lance Haymond)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A large orange billboard with the slogan "Every Child Matters" stands in the middle of Kebaowek First Nation, an Algonquin community in Quebec's Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, 300 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. 

It also has a tally of potential unmarked graves that have been discovered so far as First Nations across the country conduct ground-penetrating radar searches at former residential school sites. Leadership hopes the growing number serves as a stark reminder of how many children never returned home.

"It's taken us so long to get the attention of Canada to the atrocities that happened to our people," said Kebaowek Chief Lance Haymond.

"We just want to support those First Nations who are going through the process of discovery. It's just our way of showing support and continuing to educate and highlight what's gone on in residential schools."

The memorial in memory of children who died at residential schools is pictured in Calgary on June 8. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The sign is just one of many acts of solidarity, awareness, and remembrance that have popped up across the country ahead of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30. But while many are eager to raise awareness and make similar shows of support, navigating the different numbers circulating is a challenge. 

Challenges keeping track

The number that Kebaowek is using — 6,509 — is one that has been circulating widely on social media, among others.

"That was the number we were seeing," said Haymond.

"Is it accurate? At the end of the day, where do we continue to find good information on what those numbers are?"

CBC News was unable to verify the accuracy of the number, nor other numbers circulating on social media that were unsourced or without accompanying context.

"I get a sense that people really want the number. But from my perspective, this is a marathon, not a sprint," said Tamara Randall, who created and moderates the Facebook group Every Child Matters with over 17,000 members.

"It has been challenging on the page to navigate because people post a higher number and then everybody jumps on that number."

Based on coverage across CBC News, searches of at least nine locations have been completed to date. These searches have found over 1,300 potential unmarked burials. That includes some ground-penetrating radar searches that took place prior to this spring when news broke about potential unmarked burial sites near the former Kamloops residential school in B.C.

Ground-penetrating radar searches are in progress or investigations have been launched at approximately 17 former residential school sites, and discussions or consultations are ongoing at another 21 sites.

Dangers of misinformation

There was at least one instance of misinformation about unmarked graves circulating on social media last month, about a former residential school in Alberta. 

Sherri Chisan, president of University nuxełhot'įne thaaɁehots'į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, said she had to issue a news release debunking claims of "1,100 student babies found at Blue Quills" that was shared widely on TikTok and Facebook.

Sherri Chisan is the president of University nuxełhot’įne thaaɁehots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills in Alberta. (Submitted by Sherri Chisan )

"It was disturbing," said Chisan about the social media post. 

"This is a highly sensitive issue. People are hurting."

The university, which is run by seven First Nations in Treaty 6 territory, is located at the former Blue Quills Indian Residential School about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, which operated between 1931 and 1970.

Chisan said the university has not done any ground-penetrating radar searches for unmarked burial sites, and is only in the preliminary stages of consulting with communities about how to proceed with a search.

She said it will be important to centre survivors in the process, but misinformation can have a negative impact before any process has begun.

"It creates confusion and perhaps eventually distrust, and it makes it much more difficult to carry on with our process," said Chisan. 

"Patience, compassion, kindness, [and] love will carry us through this."

Time and effort needed

Finding out the number of children who died at residential school is a long and challenging task, said Raymond Frogner, head of archives for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, which holds the records gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

He acknowledged that emotions are high but as searches for unmarked burial sites are only one piece of the puzzle, and throwing a number on social media might not be the best way to show the magnitude and scope of the issue.

"It still takes more understanding and context and research to really know what that GPR is revealing," he said.

That won't happen overnight.

  • Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.

To date, the centre has documented 4,118 children who died at residential schools, as part of its work to implement the TRC's Call to Action 72 to create a national death register and public-facing memorial register. Not all the deaths listed on the registry include burial records.

"That's only not even a fifth of our records that we've gone through to do that," said Frogner.

"The records had been so fragmented across so many different organizations and institutions that there's still work to be done."

Frogner said the centre is continuing to go through the four million-plus records and 7,000 witness statements it holds to add more names and missing information. 

He also anticipates the number of children on the death register will increase at "least by five-fold."

"This is going to take a lot of time and effort, and the answers won't come quickly," he said.

"I think that's the thing to remember — that it's just the start of an intense period of research and effort to try and rediscover the children that were in these unmarked burials. Every school and every community has been discussing this for generations. It's just now coming to the surface and coming into a national conscience."

For Chief Haymond, he just hopes the community's sign will help keep dialogue about residential schools in the consciousness of Kebaowek's neighbours.

A monument in Kebaowek First Nation dedicated to community members who attended residential schools. (Submitted by Lance Haymond)

"Every effort that we do goes a long way in educating the average Quebecer, because for the most part our history has been erased," he said.

"It's taken so long for this issue to become front and centre. Even though we've had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it only generated a reaction when numbers started to be put out there."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.