‘Little lives lost’
Death toll of 4,100 children in residential schools expected to rise as more documents reviewed
Jeffrey Point figures he was about 14 that day. He had joined a work party of men from the Skowkale First Nation in Chilliwack to restore a graveyard that had fallen into disuse.
On that summer day more than 50 years ago, the men hacked through blackberry bushes and weeds to uncover mossy stone monuments and markers sunk deep in the ground.
Point remembers the discovery of a giant wooden cross surrounded by a “little picket fence.” Inside the fence were dozens of smaller unmarked crosses. All work stopped. “I remember the elders, sitting for hours, almost the whole day, discussing: ‘What do we do?’”
He didn’t understand their unease until someone explained: The crosses indicated the graves of “the kids from the school.”
The monument was a vivid representation of the wounds left by Canada’s residential school system. From 1893 to 1941, Chilliwack was home to the Coqualeetza Residential School, one of British Columbia’s 18 residential schools.
First Nations children from across B.C. were separated from their families and forced to attend. Many eventually returned home strangers to those who loved them. Some never returned home at all. The children who died while attending residential schools became known as the missing children. Their place of burial, cause of death and sometimes even their names are a mystery that has reverberated down through the decades.
Now a raft of historical documents — including records recently released by B.C.’s Vital Statistics Agency — could finally shed light on the thousands of “little lives lost” during one of the most shameful chapters in Canada’s history.
From the 1870s to mid-1990s, more than 150,000 First Nations children across Canada attended residential schools, often against their parents’ wishes. The governmentfunded, church-run schools were established to isolate aboriginal children from their families and assimilate them into the dominant culture.
A lawsuit launched in 2005 by First Nations against the federal government and churches resulted in a settlement that included the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008.
Since then, the TRC has been holding public hearings across the country to allow those who attended residential schools to tell their stories.
The TRC has also established The Missing Children Project to create a register of children who died while attending residential school. So far, researchers have confirmed the deaths of 4,100 children in the schools — a number that is expected to rise as newly released documents are reviewed.
“The missing children have been our top priority in terms of obtaining documents,” said TRC executive director Kimberly Murray.
In December, B.C. became the first province to release death certificates for all First Nations children, ages four to 19, who died between 1917 and 1956. After 1956, race was no longer noted on death certificates, although the B.C. Vital Statistics Agency is working to supply the TRC with documents from 1957 onward.
In total, the agency handed over 4,200 death registration documents in response to a TRC request, said an agency spokeswoman.
It is now up to the TRC to sift through the documents — which note name, age, location of death and, in some cases, location of burial and cause of death — to determine which children died while attending a residential school.
“We’ve written to every province asking for similar records,” said Murray, adding B.C. is “way ahead” of others in terms of electronic information storage.
The TRC will chronicle the fate of the missing children in its final report, due in spring 2015. The register of missing children will be kept at the TRC’s national research centre, where families will be able to access it.
Some may find out for the very first time how their relatives died.
“It looks like the death rate in residential schools was definitely higher than it was for children who were not in them,” said Murray.
It is particularly telling that the schools were often built with a cemetery on the grounds.
Many students succumbed to disease, including tuberculosis and Spanish flu. Poor nutrition, badly ventilated housing and crowded living conditions made the children more vulnerable to illness.
The buildings themselves were also a factor in several fatal fires. Instead of proper fire escapes, some schools had a pole for children
“I can never reconcile to what happened. It’s a nightmare until the day I die.”
— CYRIL PIERRE
RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL SURVIVOR
to slide down. But the poles were useless when staff locked children into the dorms at night.
“The doors and the windows would be locked to prevent escape, so when a fire broke out they’d be trapped,” said Murray.
The TRC has also discovered records of children who committed suicide and several who died while trying to run away.
On New Year’s Day 1937, as the temperature plummeted to -30 C, four boys ran away from the Lejac residential school in northern B.C. They were found frozen to death on an ice-covered lake.
One boy had “no hat, one rubber missing and his foot bare,” his father recounted to investigators. Another boy was found lying face down with his coat under him.
The children had travelled about eight miles “straight to the light that was at the village” and died less than half a mile from home, according to an account contained in John Milloy’s book A National Crime.
But while some children died from a clear cause, the deaths of others remain unexplained. Murray said the TRC has been unable to find a cause of death for about 50 per cent of the children.
It is hoped the documents provided by the B.C. Vital Statistics Agency, as well as records that have been requested from other provinces, church archives and Library and Archives Canada will provide further answers.
Another part of the puzzle is determining where the children were buried.
At Coqualeetza, it appears local children were returned home for burial, while those from distant communities were buried in the school’s cemetery, said Sto:lo historian Sonny Naxaxalhts’I McHalsie.
Families from remote places may not have learned of their child’s death until summer, when he or she did not return with the other kids. Some families were never told how their children died.
McHalsie said he has been contacted twice by families looking for information on kids who never returned home from Coqualeetza.
He has been unable to help them.
“The first thing I saw was a guy with a strap,” recalled Cyril Pierre of the moment he entered St. Mary’s Catholic Boarding School in Mission.
Up until that day, Pierre, who was seven years old and one of 13 kids, had lived with his parents on Barnston Island.
He had no idea what to expect at school, but it quickly became clear.
“It was what you might call a silent violence,” said Joe Ginger, another St. Mary’s student who agreed to share his experience at a local school with the Sunday Province.
“You learn to be quiet. You develop certain habits — of holding your breath, clenching your fists, of being always on guard.”
Each morning, the children were woken by a prefect with a bell in one hand and a strap in the other.
Kids who wet the bed would be hit. Pierre remembers watching them carry their dirty sheets on their shoulders to the laundry.
The best food the boys ate was stolen from the orchard on the hill above the school.
A few years after they arrived at the school, the sexual abuse began.
Sick boys, who were alone in the dorms during classes, were easy prey, said Pierre.
In 2004, after an extensive RCMP investigation, a prefect named Gerald Moran was convicted of 12 sexualabuse charges related to his time at St. Mary’s and another residential school in Kamloops. He was given a three-year sentence.
The school held other dangers as well.
Both Pierre and Ginger remember children who died. The students were never told what happened to their classmates.
Ginger remembers a girl named Clara May. “We were in kindergarten together. We ate crayons together,” he added with a laugh.
“In Grade 11 she passed. They sent her body home.”
Pierre remembers a boy named Bradley. In the evening he was in the yard with the other boys, playing marbles. The next morning, he was dead. After graduation, Pierre returned to Barnston Island for good. He quickly fell into alcoholism.
“I couldn’t face my people. I couldn’t face my family. The shame and disgust killed me time and time again.”
Both men have mixed feelings about the TRC.
“I can never reconcile to what happened,” said Pierre. “It’s a nightmare until the day I die.” But he has found meaning in his life. Although residential school forced him to grow up away from his family, Pierre is a dedicated father and grandfather.
“I’m just now practising something I wish I’d learned from my father,” he said. “I tell my sons I love them every time I see them.”
Pierre and Ginger have also found the courage to share their story with the world through a film made by First Nations educator Dallas Yellowfly, who works for the Surrey school district. Sometimes Pierre and Ginger accompany him to presentations.
“When Cyril and Joe start talking, people just sit and listen,” said Yellowfly. “Kids might read about residential schools in a textbook, but to hear it from someone who was actually there is totally different.”
Yellowfly said it’s important for students to understand how residential schools have had a lasting impact on families and communities.
Half a century after it was restored, the Skowkale graveyard still feels like a wild place. The rows of sunken headstones are surrounded by a towering cedar hedge. Visitors are greeted by a racket of birds.
On a recent day in January, Jeffrey Point and Sonny McHalsie walked among the stones to a large white cross. It is near the place where the work party, including the teenaged Point,
“The doors and windows would be locked to prevent escape, so when a fire broke out, they’d be trapped.”
ť KIMBERLY MURRAY
encountered the residential school monument 50 years ago.
When the elders found the old cross, they would have been very concerned, explained McHalsie. In First Nations culture, it is important for the dead to be buried in the place of their people.
Many of the children buried in the Coqualeetza cemetery were not from Chilliwack. Years after the school’s closure in the 1940s, the bones were moved to First Nations graveyards in the area, including Skowkale, Tzeachten and Skwah.
Point recalls the elders talking for hours about what should be done about the children’s graves. “They were still talking as we left.” When the work party returned the next morning, the monument, including the small white crosses, was gone.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION
McHalsie interpreted this to mean the Skowkale elders decided to free the children’s spirits from the graveyard by removing the structures that bound them there. “They would then be able to return home.” For the TRC’s Murray, identifying and recognizing the missing children is driven by the desire to “right the wrongs” of the past, as well as to help families move forward.
“We know that the information is very important to the families of those who died,” she said.
“It’s about healing. As one of the commissioners says, it’s about ‘the little lives lost’ and giving them the respect that we should give to any child who dies.”