Where are the children BURIED? . . .
Truth and Reconciliation Commission looking into most horrible chapter of
painful residential schools saga
By: Alexandra Paul
No one knows how many children died in residential schools.
No one knows how many graves were dug for them.
And there is no peace without knowing.
Research at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is underway to get
a grip on
the approximate number of missing children and unmarked graves at residential
schools in Canada, including on the Prairies.
Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the three-member commission, said the
tragedy of the missing children is a chapter that casts a deep shadow on the
saga of residential schools.
That children died and went missing isn't in dispute.
It's part of the record and the memory, such as the story Joe Harper recounted
of how his friend Joseph died in obscurity at the Cross Lake
Fifty years on, it still rankles him.
"There was never a funeral for him," Harper said outside one of the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission tents set up to hear survivor accounts last June at
The Forks. "I don't even know how his parents ever found out."
One question likely to remain a mystery is how many Josephs were at the schools.
"We are, quite frankly, not going to be able to say how many children died in
the schools or say where they are all buried, and what happened to them after
they died," Sinclair said recently at the commission's downtown Winnipeg
Nevertheless, he said it's essential to tackle the issue as part of the
residential schools legacy.
To get the work done, the commission has hired Alex Maass, a former Indian
Affairs civil servant who is an anthropology expert on gravesites. This month,
Greg Younging, a professor of indigenous studies at the University of British
Columbia, was appointed assistant director of research. One of his jobs is to
oversee the Missing Children Project.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Canada's provincial governments were in
place, along with requirements for deaths to be reported as they occurred.
While residential school deaths may have been reported, there are few death
certificates attached to student files in old archives. Finding out what
happened to each child would involve matching church and government records to
Vital Statistics files.
"In order to properly document the children who died in the schools and where
they are located, you'd have to go through millions and millions of pages of
archival material," Sinclair said.
The commission isn't equipped to complete the herculean task.
Even then, there are too many gaps in the records to clear up every death and
every missing child.
The best the commission can do is try to identify the magnitude of the problem,
Sinclair said. "And once we have, there will be better information for a
decision to be made about what to do about it."
The commission hopes to have enough information to suggest further research and ways to commemorate the graves.
Survivors' accounts are part of the historical record and will be used in the research. Documents to corroborate those accounts are, not surprisingly, hard to find.
"We've heard stories from survivors that babies were born in the schools to mothers who'd been impregnated by teachers and by priests. They say their babies were taken away. They think their babies were killed," Sinclair said. "We don't know the extent to which that occurred, if at all."
Records show there was a practice followed when children died.
"The local principal of the school would make contact with the family and basically say, 'What do you want us to do with your child? He's dead. He drowned when he was running away or he died of disease.' Sometimes there was no effort made to contact the family. They just buried the child."
Depending on the era, there might be a few deaths per year or dozens.
John Milloy, author of National Crime, the most extensive book on Canadian residential schools, has said that reports dating back as far as 1907 show 24 to 42 per cent of children in some schools died of tuberculosis. He said nearly every school he knew of had a cemetery on the grounds.
Records cited in the commission's 2010 study on missing children contained very few references to those cemeteries.
With gaps and discrepancies like that, investigators have their work cut out for them.
"We need to be sensitive to the fact there is a great deal of misinformation and non-information out there," Sinclair said.
Google "residential schools" to get a glimpse of how the fate of missing children decades ago is a super-sensitive and sensational issue today.
Scores of sites pop up, referring to the Canadian Holocaust, in which 50,000 children died or disappeared. The figure is widely reported, but also considered likely a dramatic overstatement.
Many of the sites feature former United Church minister Kevin Arnett from British Columbia, the self-appointed crusader for families who lost children in residential schools. His contribution fuels a debate that's disturbing enough without potentially exaggerated claims.
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice ordered a working group in 2008 to define the scope of the problem in the wake of Arnett's polarizing allegations and their impact on survivors.
The working group found that children had gone missing and graves were not uncommon. The issue was handed on to the commission.
"There are people out there able to take advantage of the mistrust between survivors and the government and maximize their fear and their anger," Sinclair said. "That means there can be no peace until there are some answers."
alexandra [dot] paul [at] freepress [dot] mb [dot] ca