What we know about how many children died at Canada's residential schools

The distressing discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school in British Columbia has prompted many to question just how many lives ended at such institutions across Canada.

Experts say the actual total number depends greatly on locating burial sites, many of which remain unearthed.

Opened in 1893, the Kamloops Indian Residential School had once been the largest residential school in the country. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) previously listed a conservative tally of 51 children dying there.

But using ground-penetrating radar, preliminary surveys showed that the true number of unrecorded deaths was much higher, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said last week.

Kisha Supernant, an anthropologist and director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology in Edmonton, works on uncovering mass grave sites. She said determining the ultimate death toll across the country is extremely difficult because we haven’t uncovered all the remains yet.

But when it comes to a total number of unmarked residential-school-related graves across Canada, she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview: “We can anticipate that there are thousands.”

She said work like hers across the country is increasingly urgent and “extremely important,” and explained the uphill battle to uncover the deaths exists because of gaps in records from different churches and organizations that ran the schools for decades.

To date, according to conservative estimates from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 4,100 to 6,000 children died amid abuse and neglect while in the residential school system, which ran until 1996.

WHAT ARE RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS?

Between the late 1800s to 1996, approximately 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were separated from their families and forced to attend boarding schools, where at least one in every 50 of these students died, according to the TRC. The aim of this network of schools was to eliminate Indigenous language and culture and replace them with English and Christian beliefs respectively.

Although evidence of forced assimilation were found as early as the 17th century -- well before Confederation -- the practice became Canadian public policy by the late 1800s. In these residential schools, children were forbidden from practicing their culture, and were often subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

The TRC issued its final report on residential schools more than five years ago, and the nearly 4,000-page account details the harsh mistreatment inflicted on Indigenous children at the institutions.

Other research in the past decade found that students at some schools were even the unwitting participants of decades-long unethical experiments in which malnourished children were denied adequate nutrition.

According to the TRC’s 2015 report on missing children, there were several causes for the lack of a specific death toll, including: authorities not informing parents of deaths; school administrators often opposing sending back the bodies of children in order to keep operational costs low; and, schools placing coffins together in the ground -- particularly during deadly outbreaks of disease where there would be multiple deaths at a time.

Over the decades, the evidence of mass grave sites have been unearthed near or at sites of former residential schools.

These include the 72 graves uncovered at the Battleford Industrial School in Saskatchewan in the 1970s; the coffins of 34 children who had died at nearby Dunbow Residential School in Alberta in 2001; and, the two dozen graves discovered near the Muskowekwan Residential School in Regina two years ago.

“These are not isolated incidents,” Andrew Martindale, an anthropology professor from the University of British Columbia, told CTV News Channel. “Indigenous communities have known of this history for generations.”

THE TOTAL NUMBER OF DEATHS VARIES

One of the most gruelling tasks of the seven-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was attempting to determine the total number of lives lost to the residential school system, which officially sits at 4,100.

Crystal Fraser, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alberta, said “families have been telling us for decades that that number and that figure is much, much higher.”

“There are many children who went to residential schools who did not come home. And there was never any kind of explanation given when they asked about their children,” Fraser, a Gwichyà Gwich'in woman, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

As a child, Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Band, who survived going to Kamloops Indian Residential School, previously told CTV News Channel that when his peers disappeared, they were simply never spoken of again.

“I just remember that they were here one day and they were gone the next,” he said.

Here are a few Indigenous crisis support lines if you or someone you know needs help:

��Tsow-Tun-Le-Lum Society: 1-888-403-3123 (7 days a week)
��Kuu-Us Crisis Line: 1-800-588-8717 (24/7)
��Indian Residential School Survivors and Family: 1-866-925-4419

— Jackie Vandinther (@JackVanD) May 28, 2021

The TRC noted that when schools shifted location, records of the old burial sites and informal cemeteries faded from public knowledge over time. The commission also found few were identified with agencies who regulated cemeteries, with many grave sites becoming overgrown and not properly maintained.

Fraser, whose own mother and grandmother survived that system, explained it was rarely in the interests of the administrators to keep records of those who died as a result of an assault, murder, medical procedures that went wrong, disease or because of the unsanitary conditions there. And, based on that, many deaths were simply not recorded.

UNEARTHING GRAVES CAN REOPEN OLD WOUNDS

Supernant explained that when it comes to uncovering graves it requires huge input from communities, examining school site records, and collecting personal accounts of cemeteries.

“Then, we go out with our equipment and we'll lay out grates over the areas of interest and then we can start to use the equipment to look below the surface of the ground without having to dig,” she said, noting some families may be reluctant to have these sites unearthed.

“[The work] needs to be done with such care because it really can reopen old wounds for survivors and families,” she said. But when communities agree to it, they often lead ceremonies beforehand.

“Working on these sites is extremely heartbreaking and very, very difficult to do,” Supernant said, adding that while these discoveries should resonate with everyone on a human level, it hits her heart personally, as she’s Indigenous herself and a mother.

When the TRC was released, several of the 94 calls to action for government and other parties included efforts to uncover missing children and burial information and develop registries of children of residential schools. The latter is currently underway now.

Martindale pointed out that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action specify that these investigations should be “Indigenous-led initiatives.”

“Different communities whose population, whose children, may be in these cemeteries need to be recognized as the leading voices,” he said.

“The government’s responsibility is to appropriately fund this initiative, to provide the resources for communities to do this necessary work.”

This means providing “adequate resources,” he said, whether that be funds, technology such as ground-penetrating radar, experts, or the broader supports to help communities deal with the trauma that these investigations bring up.

The TRC notes that while additional funds in excess of $1.5 billion were requested to investigate gravesites on residential schools in 2009, the request was denied later that year.  

Two of the related calls to action includes working with Indigenous families whose children died at residential schools, and working with landowners to determine gravesites.Supernant, like others, felt there hasn't been enough progress in either effort, and she called for stronger commitments in following through.

But she’s hopeful work like hers will be further supported going forward, especially after this latest discovery in B.C.

Supernant said it’s pivotal as communities deserve to have anthropologists and archeologists’ expertise at their disposal in “pursuing justice.”

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With files from CTVNews.ca's Alexandra Mae Jones

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If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.