The difficult past and present of Canada’s indigenous peoples are once again in the spotlight after First Nations groups took it upon themselves to locate unmarked graves at two former residential school sites.
The issue of missing children and unrecorded burials was the subject of Volume 4 of the 3,500-page Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report that was released in 2015. The Liberal government allocated $33.8 million in the 2019 budget to establish a residential school death registry, but funding for the program was only recently made available.
Ken Coates, a professor in the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, says finding the gravesites is important for the First Nations community. He says the discovery acknowledges in a more public way what the community has been saying for years, and provides an opportunity to grieve the past.
“It’s a chance for some closure,” he said in an interview.
Dustin Twin Sr., an elder with the Swan River First Nation in northern Alberta, agrees.
“The nations and the families can grieve, and put some closure and know what happened to the children,” Twin told The Epoch Times.
Twin, 74, attended the Joussard residential school in northwest Alberta from age 8 until he was 17, from 1955 to 1964.
He says his grandparents cared for him before he was sent to the school, and he missed them very much while at the school. He has very bad memories from his experience at the school, which he says led him down a path of alcoholism and a troubled life. The school was very “militaristic” and authoritative, he said, and the nuns running it didn’t treat the children with kindness, making him feel he was “inferior.” He recalls that some would sometimes even call him and his peers “le sauvage,” which can be translated from French as “completely wild.”
Twin says he only had a chance to see his grandparents during Christmas and summer holidays at first. Then when he was older, he was able to travel back on the weekends if he could arrange his own transportation for the 50-kilometre trek home.
Twin says he didn’t see any fellow peers pass away during his time at the school. But he notes that in his community, like others, he heard stories of children going to the residential schools and never coming back.
“It was common knowledge that there were parents that didn’t know what happened to their children,” he said.
J.R. Miller, professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchewan, says the whole issue is very sad.
“I feel for the families in the communities. I’ve worked with some of them and I know that it just tears them apart when these sorts of stories surface, but they’re facing up to it,” Miller told The Epoch Times.
The TRC was organized as one of the requirements of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) of 2006. The agreement established a $1.9 billion compensation package for all former residential school students. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper offered an apology to Canada’s indigenous peoples for the schools in 2008.
The TRC received $72 million from Ottawa from 2007 to 2015 for its work. It was mandated to create a complete historical record of the residential school system and to capture the experience of those impacted, by talking with witnesses and consulting documents, while supporting commemoration for former residential school students.
In an article in the British Columbian Quarterly, Miller notes that the TRC’s work in some areas, including the investigation into the children who died at the schools, was not conducted thoroughly, as key researchers left the TRC before their work could be completed.
He also says the final TRC report contains some errors. As an example, the “History” volume mentions that officials in the late 19th century considered making it mandatory for First Nations children to attend “some type of school,” but he says it wrongly concludes that the question being debated “was when–not if–parents would be compelled to send their children to residential schools.”
Attending schools was made mandatory for indigenous children as part of an amendment to the Indian Act in 1920, decades after it was made compulsory for non-indigenous children. Article 10 of the act requires that every “Indian child between the ages of seven and fifteen years who is physically able shall attend such day, industrial or boarding school as may be designated by the Superintendent General for the full periods during which such school is open each year.”
The issue becomes more complicated when considering that even though day schools were cited as an option, for reserves that didn’t have day schools available or couldn’t bus the children to public schools—which became possible for some in later years—the only choice was residential schools.
Miller told The Epoch Times that one way the state failed the children in its care at the residential schools was by not ensuring the adequate provision of necessities such as food and health care.
According to the TRC, it was able to confirm 3,201 deaths of children in residential schools during the history of the operation of the schools from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. Commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair has said the number could be as high as 6,000.
The TRC says in its report that the “failure to establish and enforce adequate standards, coupled with the failure to adequately fund the schools, resulted in unnecessarily high death rates at residential schools.”
It is estimated that more than 150,000 indigenous children attended the schools over the years, with enrolment peaking in the 1950s.
Of the 3,201 deaths, 2,434 occurred prior to 1940, and 691 in the following 60 years (the date for 76 cases of the deaths are unknown), the TRC says. Its report notes that the major cause of death was tuberculosis, accounting for 47 percent of the deaths for which there is a known cause.
The report says the death rate among the indigenous children in residential schools was much higher than the death rate among children in the general population.
It is also known that the death rate on reserves from diseases such as tuberculosis was higher than the general population. The situation gradually improved in the 1950s as the federal government started to take more health-care initiatives. Miller says a limitation of records makes it hard to know if the death rate in residential schools was higher compared to the death rate among children on reserves. But he says the rate was likely higher in the schools.
The TRC report says that most typically, the remains of children who died were not returned to the families, and many families were left with unanswered questions about what happened to their children or relatives who passed away.
Miller says the lack of information added significantly to the anxiety and anguish felt by the families of the missing children.
“In general, there was little consideration given by officials for families of residential school children–or for First Nations people in general. Officials’ attitudes were just a microcosm of the general population’s indifference about indigenous peoples,” he said.
Besides the issue of death, there have also been cases of abuse in residential schools. The IRSSA set up an independent assessment process to provide compensation for cases of sexual abuse or serious physical abuse.
Miller says as efforts get underway to uncover unmarked burial sites, there’s a chance the number of deaths will go up. He wants those communities who want the remains exhumed be provided that chance, and be supplied with resources to identify the remains and cause of death. He notes, however, that it’s a big undertaking.
“It’s going to take, I’m afraid, a fair number of years and a lot of money,” he said.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said on May 27 that by using ground-penetrating radar, it found the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said on June 24 that it found 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School using ground-penetrating radar. Chief Cadmus Delorme said that the graves may have had markers at one point, but that if they did, those markers have since been removed. He added that it’s not clear if all the graves belong to children.
Rod Clifton, professor emeritus of sociology of education at the University of Manitoba and co-author of a recent book on the TRC, “From Truth Comes Reconciliation,” says there are a great many challenges and steps needed to identify any bodies discovered at the gravesites and determine if they belong to children, students at the school, or others.
“Ground-penetrating images are not easy to interpret, and forensic anthropologists are needed to examine the remains,” he said in an interview.
Adding to the complexity is that other members of the community could have been buried on the school grounds, as usually the schools had a chapel along with a nearby cemetery, Clifton says.
A spokesperson with the BC Coroners Service said the office has offered help to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and is currently awaiting further information about the report compiled by the First Nation’s consultant who conducted the radar scanning.
A Saskatchewan government representative said the province’s coroners office is not currently involved in the Cowessess First Nation’s discovery.
Several provinces, including Saskatchewan, B.C., Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba, have announced funding to help find more burial sites, and the federal government has made $27 million of its earmarked $33.8 million fund available immediately.
Clifton himself was an educator at a residential school in the Northwest Territories in the late 1960s for 16 months, as part of a cross-cultural education program he was enrolled in at his university. Over the years he has become more familiar with the culture, and his spouse is a member of the Blackfoot Nation.
He says that of the final TRC report, which contains six main volumes, the “Summary” and “Legacy” volumes received the most media attention but they don’t fairly represent the evidence collected in the other parts of the report.
The book he co-authored says testimony “that is favourable to the IRS [Indian Residential School] system, collected from school administrators, employees, and non-indigenous IRS students, is provided in many volumes, but these testimonies and their significance are absent from the crucial ‘Summary’ and ‘Legacy’ volumes.”
He also notes that before the TRC’s final report was published, TRC chair Sinclair told the Calgary Herald in 2010: “While the TRC has heard many experiences of unspeakable abuse, we have been heartened by testimonies which affirm the dedication and compassion of committed educators who sought to nurture the children in their care.”
Clifton adds that the schools were established at the outset amid a changing Canada to provide education to the indigenous population, whose members were facing hardships such as a dwindling bison population in the West, leading to dire food shortages.
“It’s easy to second-guess that now, but back then it was difficult to know the best way,” Clifton said.
“I think Canadians really want to know what the truth is in all of its subtlety.”
Coates says the issue of residential schools has become so “politicized” that it’s hard to have a comprehensive conversation.
“Let’s take two things that we know to be true,” he said. “One is that there were brutal pedophiles and violent racists in residential schools who did unthinkably bad things to the children. And some of them have been arrested and put in jail, and some of them have never been charged.”
Meanwhile, “We also know it to be true that there were teachers and principals who were kind and gentle, some of whom actually took time to learn the language of the children and who were very sympathetic to indigenous cultures,” Coates noted.
“But they still had a system that was designed to teach children to learn English or French and to participate in the mainstream economy, and not share the value system and lifeways of their parents and grandparents.”
No Single Solution
For Clifton, an important part of reconciliation is to avoid further polarization in society. Referring to church burnings in B.C. and Alberta in the wake of the recent developments, he says people should be careful not to create an environment leading to further separation of the community.
“I hope we can come out of this without doing more damage,” he said.
For Coates, there is no single, immediate solution for the path forward.
“We’re not going to have something that’s going to miraculously turn things around in a minute,” he says.
Coates thinks what is needed is to have effective governments run by indigenous people, and for them to decide their economic future, and to avoid “paternalism.”
“I think solutions are actually in front of us. We just need to look at communities that are becoming more confident and celebrating their own success, and let other First Nations find their own path for those outcomes,” he says.
“Overwhelmingly, [First Nations] are in support of carefully done resource development and economic development. They are sick and tired of being poor and being dependent on government welfare payments with no future.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated to add a reference to the Indian Act with respect to the issue of mandatory school attendance.