As a non-partisan, non-denominational national women’s organization which supports the family, the foundation of society, we were understandably deeply concerned about reports on the children who attended some 150 residential schools during approximately 100 years of their operation.
We believed it was important, however, to first determine the facts, analyse them objectively, and hopefully, reach conclusions without rancour.
We therefore reviewed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report released in 2015, and the report by anthropologist Dr. Scott Hamilton, Lakehead University. Dr. Hamilton was retained by the TRC to address the question of deceased residential school children buried on school lands. Both these documents are in the public domain. Dr. Hamilton’s report is available at https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/AAA-Hamilton-cemetery-FInal.pdf . These two documents provide a different perspective on residential schools than has been made available to date. The reports are summarized as follows:
Aboriginal Mortality Rates
According to Dr Hamilton’s report, communicable diseases were a primary cause of poor health and death for Aboriginal people during the 19th and 20th centuries. Tuberculosis was not the only epidemic during these years, there were others, such as the devastating Spanish flu of 1918. There were no inoculations available at the time, nor were there any anti-bacterial drugs such as penicillin or anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drugs. It is significant that by 1948, the death rate of indigenous children in the schools had substantially decreased due to medical developments.
The Federal Department of Indian Affairs Assumes Responsibility for Residential Schools
Prior to 1883, Protestant and Catholic missionaries established churches and schools, and in some cases, hospitals to care for Aboriginals of all ages. Schools were intended to provide basic literacy to enable aboriginal children to function amidst non-Aboriginal social and religious values, and to provide vocational schools to develop skills required in a changing society.
In 1883 the Canadian Government under the Department of Indian Affairs took control of and established further larger institutions, creating the residential school system.
Dr. Hamilton states that Indian Affairs did not have a formal, written policy on the burial of children from residential schools until 1958, which was fully 75 years after the rapid expansion of their system. Although not written, the practice of the Department was to not pay funeral expenses for children who had died. This is consistent with the practice that occurred throughout the whole history of the residential school system, namely, to keep burial costs low which discouraged sending deceased students back to their home communities. Consequently, the residential schools were required to cover the costs of burial. The most cost-effective way of doing this was to establish a cemetery on school grounds.
Such cemeteries were burial places not only for students, but also for teachers, their families, and religious personnel who had died while working at the schools. Over time, the wooden crosses marking the graves deteriorated, as did the fencing surrounding the cemeteries which became overgrown with vegetation.
There is no evidence of an intent to hide these graves. Further, accordingly to Dr. Hamilton, there is no indication that the children buried in these long-forgotten cemeteries died of abuse or neglect. The responsibility for maintenance was not accepted by Indian Affairs and this fell on the religious congregations operating these schools. The cemeteries were also used for burial of members of nearby municipalities, which also did not accept any maintenance responsibilities.
Trudeau Government Fails to Act
The existence of these cemeteries has been known for years, this was evidenced by the fact that the entire Volume 4 of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report dealt with the question of the cemeteries on residential school grounds.
The TRC made six specific recommendations (Calls to Action) for federal government action in respect to the questions of missing children, unmarked graves, and residential school cemeteries (Calls to Action: 71 – 76). In fact, the TRC report concluded with a total of 94 Calls to Action, most of which have never been acted upon.
The Trudeau government ignored these recommendations, and instead now pretends to be surprised and shocked at the “discovery” of abandoned cemeteries notwithstanding the fact that Trudeau’s 2019 budget had allocated $33.8 million to establish a residential school death registry.
Blame the Church
Rather than accept responsibility for his government’s failures, Trudeau is now trying to shift blame onto the Roman Catholic Church stating “we expect the Church to step up and take responsibility for its role in this and be there to help in the grieving and the healing …. It’s something we are all still waiting for the Catholic Church to do”.
The Liberal government not only failed to carry out its responsibilities regarding the TRC recommendations, but also has refused to acknowledge that the federal Department of Indian Affairs had full responsibility for the residential schools, refused to pay for the costs of the burial of the children who died at the schools, refused to pay the costs of transporting the children to their families, or to maintain the cemeteries.
Although the various churches that administered the Residential Schools may have had their own failings, one should not lose sight of the fact that it was the federal government that created, funded, oversaw, and was responsible for the residential school system.
It is common humanity that we show respect for the dead, including maintaining cemeteries. This should not be political or divisive. What is unacceptable is Prime Minister Trudeau and his government’s complete failure to deal with and acknowledge the actual facts of this situation or to show respect for the dead as well as the living.