|Train Up Your Children by Dorothy Sullivan|
After many years of speculation based on anecdotal evidence, some hard facts are emerging about the numbers of deaths in Canada's racist system of residential schools.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (www.tra.ca) has now determined that at least 4,000 aboriginal children died in the church-run schools, which operated from the 1870s until the last one closed in 1996. About 150,000 children were full-time students in the schools, isolated from their families for most of the year. The students were virtually imprisoned, in conditions which made them the victims of fires, disease, and abusers.
Thousands more were day students at such schools, many affected in similar ways. Although the federal government has issued a formal apology and financial compensation for the full-time students, the day students are still fighting for recognition.
The racist nature of the residential school system was revealed by administrators who spoke about "taking the Indian out of the child." The schools banned students from speaking in their own languages or learning traditional skills, instead training them in English or French to become exploited members of the Canadian workforce. This strategy is today universally recognized as a form of genocide, an attempt to destroy a people by wiping out their unique culture.
But this genocide takes on a shocking dimension with the estimated numbers of deaths, based on partial federal government records. Commission officials expect the number to rise as researchers access more files from Library and Archives Canada, and from churches and provincial sources.
"Aboriginal kids' lives just didn't seem as worthy as non‑aboriginal kids," Kimberly Murray, executive director of the Commission, said in a recent interview. "The death rate was much higher than non‑indigenous kids."
The commission has spent the last several years studying what is widely considered Canada's worst historical crime.
A lawsuit against the federal government and churches resulted in a settlement that included payments to those affected. Created in 2008, the Commission's mandate is to hold public hearings for people to tell their stories, and to 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 names will be contained in a registry available to the public, but researchers say the exact number of deceased children will never be known. As Murray says, "I think we're just scratching the surface."
Most of the 4,000 known deaths fall into several categories. Despite repeated warnings that the schools needed to install proper fire escapes and sprinklers, many students died in fires. Schools routinely locked their dormitories to prevent children from escaping to rejoin their families. Instead of spending money on fire escapes, they often built poles outside of windows for children to slide down, but left the windows locked.
Some children who did run away were found frozen to death near the schools, or drowned in nearby rivers.
In one such tragedy, Allen Willie, Andrew Paul, Maurice Justin, and Johnny Michael fled the Lejac residential school in British Columbia on January 1, 1937, in minus 30 degree temperatures. The four boys were found frozen to death on a lake, one of them wearing only summer clothes, with one rubber boot missing.
These types of deaths were far from rare," said Murray, noting that "there were quite a few examples of children who ran away and died."
Others, malnourished and housed in poorly‑ventilated buildings, died from tuberculosis. Some committed suicide rather than suffer sexual and physical violence from staff members.
There have also been serious allegations of manslaughter and murder in residential schools, by former students who have courageously spoken out against their abusers. While the Commission has not found records confirming such crimes, it seems highly unlikely that such documents would be kept by the perpetrators.
When a child died in a residential school, the body was usually buried nearby, since the schools and the government would not pay to ship it home. Some were placed in marked graves, others in unmarked graves. The families were often never told what happened to such children.
The Commission is scheduled to release its final report by June 2015, including the story of the deceased children. Many survivors and family members are hoping that the report will shed new light on what happened to their beloved relatives and friends.