Death count stamped on disgraced Indian residential school system

Matthew Coutts
National Affairs Reporter
Daily Brew
Jonathan Kakegamic, a Keewaywin First Nation member, is principal of Dennis Franklin Cromarty School in Thunder Bay. Many native young people go in search of high school diplomas in the northern Ontario city.

Freshly studied documents on Canada’s disgraced Indian residential school system suggest more than 3,000 children died while in the imposed care of such facilities, stamping a harsh number on the cost of an often overlooked smudge on Canada’s history.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said the number has been confirmed through the study of government and school records, telling the Canadian Press that all but 500 of those left dead have been identified.

What is amazing is that this is the first time a number has been placed on residential school fatalities based on systematic research.

Until now, there have only been first-hand accounts and speculative accounting.

[ Related: Research finds  3,000 confirmed Indian residential school deaths ]

It will certainly be noted that this report, based on study of various government and school records, comes just days after a judge ordered the federal government provide the commission with all relevant files — not just those available in the archives.

One wonders if more access to documents will mean more details on fatalities.

Some 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children went through the church-run school system dating back to the 1840s. They were removed from their communities and forbidden to speak their own languages

There were over 130 locations across Canada, the last of which closed in 1996. There are 80,000 former students still living in Canada.

The reported mortality rate is unlikely to have an immediate effect on government policy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already issued a formal apology to former students in 2008, and the commission's mandate includes recommending a path forward.

And still, it is not as if the rest of Canada didn’t face the threat of sickness and poor living conditions at that time as well.

The mortality rate of the Spanish flu is not exactly known, but as many as 100 million people died of it worldwide in the early 1900s — including some 50,000 Canadians. It is believed the mortality rate was somewhere around 2 per cent.

The horrific conditions of the time and the effects of a devastating Spanish flu certainly attributed to the mortality rate inside the residential school system. But as the Canadian Press notes, those schools would have worked as a breeding ground for flu and tuberculosis.

And those left dead were not the only ones left scarred from the system. There have been countless reports of abuse at the hands of teachers, not to mention the systematic attempt to “kill the Indian in the child.

If anything positive is to come out of Monday's revelation, it could be that Canadians will finally pay attention to the failings of our past.

Marie Wilson, a commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says Canadians have a blind spot when it comes to the residential school system.

Wilson told the Montreal Gazette:

Canadians have good hearts. We are the first to jump up to help in places like Haiti and other places around the world where there are tragedies. But we have been taught to be comfortably blind to need when it is in our midst.

By the time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is finished, we might finally understand the scope of damage caused by the residential school system to our First Nations community.

Whatever the cost was, it cannot be summarized by a simple death count. But that doesn't mean the number can be ignored, either.