N.W.T. MP, a residential school survivor, reflects on the graves of children in his home town

·4 min read
Michael McLeod, who is believed to be the only current MP who attended residential school, was not surprised at the news from Kamloops. 'They found where the graves were,' he says of people in his community who've done work to recover the names of the dead. (Avery Zingel/CBC - image credit)
Michael McLeod, who is believed to be the only current MP who attended residential school, was not surprised at the news from Kamloops. 'They found where the graves were,' he says of people in his community who've done work to recover the names of the dead. (Avery Zingel/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details and images some readers may find distressing.

When Northwest Territories MP Michael McLeod learned of the news from the former Kamloops Indian Residential school, he was shocked and sad, but not surprised.

There are graves here too, he said.

In Fort Providence, N.W.T., near the former Sacred Heart Mission School, there is a cemetery dedicated to the church, and in it are 300 bodies — 161 of them are children, McLeod told CBC Radio's The Trailbreaker.

"The only reason we were able to [know] that is because the elders in the community for the longest time said there is a grave site that was plowed over many years ago by the church."

McLeod believes he's the only current Member of Parliament who attended residential school, which gives him an added sense of responsibility to share what he knows.

He attended Akaitcho Hall, a former residential school in Yellowknife, in the 1970s, but he is from Fort Providence, where, he said, "a lot of children died."

Students at the Sacred Heart Mission School in Fort Providence, N.W.T., in the 1940s.
Students at the Sacred Heart Mission School in Fort Providence, N.W.T., in the 1940s. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)

The Catholic-run residential school was the first to open in the N.W.T. It operated from 1867 until 1960.

As in the case of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Fort Providence, it was Indigenous community members who took on the search for the burial sites of their own.

'They found where the graves were'

In the 1970s, Queen Elizabeth II visited the N.W.T. Celebrations were planned on the bank of the Mackenzie River, but in Fort Providence, Elders voiced their protest — the ground beneath was no place for a pavilion.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Missing Children and Unmarked Burials report, community member Albert Lafferty wanted to document the cemetery associated with the residential school and hospital in Fort Providence.

In 2003, territorial archaeologists marked off the boundaries of the old cemetery using ground radar and elders' knowledge.

A monument to those who died was installed in 2013. 'It includes the names of a few adults, but far more names and partial names of many, many children from communities running the entire length of the Mackenzie River valley,' according to the TRC.
A monument to those who died was installed in 2013. 'It includes the names of a few adults, but far more names and partial names of many, many children from communities running the entire length of the Mackenzie River valley,' according to the TRC.(Emily Blake/CBC)

"They found where the graves were," said McLeod. "We were told that the church decided to dig up all the bodies that were from the church — the priests, the nuns and the brothers — and move them to a new site and plowed all the other bodies that were buried there over."

"They were my relatives, too," he said.

While it isn't certain how many individuals were buried in the old cemetery, one study estimates 150 deaths of children and adults in the Fort Providence region before the cemetery's closure in 1929.

"It is not known how many of these individuals were buried in the original cemetery, or how many were residential school students," the report reads.

Monument to 100s who died

The town has since established a monument to commemorate those who died at residential school.

"It includes the names of a few adults, but far more names and partial names of many, many children from communities running the entire length of the Mackenzie River valley," the TRC report reads.

Among the monument's visitors are great grandchildren who want to know what happened to a relative or uncle, or people who have gone to see the names of childhood friends, and even historians, said McLeod.

A drummer performs at a ceremony in 2019 to commemorate children who died at Sacred Heart Mission school in Fort Providence.
A drummer performs at a ceremony in 2019 to commemorate children who died at Sacred Heart Mission school in Fort Providence.(Emily Blake/CBC)

"The risk of dying in a residential school was roughly one in 25, higher than the risk of mortality Canadians faced in battle during World War Two," McLeod said, referencing a finding of the TRC.

"It points to the conditions that the children were brought into," McLeod said. "They weren't given the love and nurturing that they needed at that age. A lot of times the loneliness caused them to get sick.

"And then when they did get sick, they weren't well looked after."

Rampant infectious disease spread

Illness spread easily because the schools failed to assess student's health before admission, and conditions at the school were poor.

In the fall of 1923, a typhoid outbreak at Fort Providence killed five students, which the TRC report on The Inuit and Northern Experience states was brought in through recently enrolled students, and spread through defects in the school's drainage. In 1919, 47 students got the whooping cough, others dysentery, and then, influenza claimed four lives.

Between 1943 and 1958, students faced a flu epidemic, the whooping cough once again, and an outbreak of mumps and measles, and a 1958 outbreak of influenza that left all the children bedridden, the TRC states.

Keeping momentum

McLeod, a Liberal MP, said there is now a "clear commitment" by the federal government to fund the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

He hopes the discovery of unmarked graves will "trigger a little more sense of urgency."

"We want to put up monuments and have places where people can go to identify who's buried there," he said. "It needs to be every residential school."