More Than 4,000 Children Dead Due To Residential Schools

An undated photo of residential school students at confirmation class, St. John's IRS, Wabasca

An undated photo of residential school students at confirmation class, St. John’s IRS, Wabasca

According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 4000 children are dead as a result of the forced assimilation of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples into ‘mainstream’ white Canadian society through ‘Residential Schools’.

The schools were set up by religious communities,(Catholic,Anglican, Presbyterian,and Baptist) who housed and administered the ‘lessons’ of being part of Canadian society.

The residential school system operated from the 1880s into the closing decades of the 20th century. The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Aboriginal heritage and culture or to speak their own languages. Children were severely punished if these, among other, strict rules were broken. Former students of residential schools have spoken of horrendous abuse at the hands of residential school staff: physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological. Residential schools provided Aboriginal students with an inferior education, often only up to grade five, that focused on training students for manual labour in agriculture, light industry such as woodworking, and domestic work such as laundry work and sewing.

Image from David Robertson's Graphic Novel Sugarfalls

Image from David Robertson’s graphic novel ‘Sugar Falls’,

Abuse at the schools was widespread: emotional and psychological abuse was constant, physical abuse was meted out as punishment, and sexual abuse was also common. Survivors recall being beaten and strapped; some students were shackled to their beds; some had needles shoved in their tongues for speaking their native languages. These abuses, along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and severely inadequate food and health care, resulted in a shockingly high death toll. In 1907, government medical inspector P.H. Bryce reported that 24 percent of previously healthy Aboriginal children across Canada were dying in residential schools. This figure does not include children who died at home, where they were frequently sent when critically ill. Bryce reported that anywhere from 47 percent (on the Peigan Reserve in Alberta) to 75 percent (from File Hills Boarding School in Saskatchewan) of students discharged from residential schools died shortly after returning home.

In addition to unhealthy conditions and corporal punishment, children were frequently assaulted, raped, or threatened by staff or other students. During the 2005 sentencing of Arthur Plint, a dorm supervisor at the Port Alberni Indian Residential School convicted of 16 counts of indecent assault, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hogarth called Plint a “sexual terrorist.” Hogarth stated, “As far as the victims were concerned, the Indian residential school system was nothing more than institutionalized pedophilia.”7

The extent to which Department of Indian Affairs and church officials knew of these abuses has been debated. However, the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples and Dr John Milloy, among others, concluded that church and state officials were fully aware of the abuses and tragedies at the schools. Some inspectors and officials at the time expressed alarm at the horrifying death rates, yet those who spoke out and called for reform were generally met with silence and lack of support.The Department of Indian Affairs would promise to improve the schools, but the deplorable conditions persisted.

Musqueam Nation former chief George Guerin, Kuper Island School was quoted in the book, Stolen from our Embrace, p 62,
Sister Marie Baptiste had a supply of sticks as long and thick as pool cues. When she heard me speak my language, she’d lift up her hands and bring the stick down on me. I’ve still got bumps and scars on my hands. I have to wear special gloves because the cold weather really hurts my hands. I tried very hard not to cry when I was being beaten and I can still just turn off my feelings…. And I’m lucky. Many of the men my age, they either didn’t make it, committed suicide or died violent deaths, or alcohol got them. And it wasn’t just my generation. My grandmother, who’s in her late nineties, to this day it’s too painful for her to talk about what happened to her at the school.”

“Aboriginal kids’ lives just didn’t seem as worthy as non-aboriginal kids,” Kimberly Murray, executive director of the commission, said in an interview to The National Post.

Many perished in fires — despite repeated warnings in audits that called for fire escapes and sprinklers but were ignored.

“There was report after report talking about how these schools were firetraps,” said Murray.

She said it was well known that schools were “locking kids in their dormitories because they didn’t want them to escape. And if a fire were to break out they couldn’t get out.”

Many schools refused to spend money on fire escapes. Instead, they built poles outside of windows for children to slide down. But the windows were locked, and children were unable to reach the poles.

“It’s amazing that they didn’t make those corrections in those schools. There are just so many deaths that I think could have been prevented if they had done what they were supposed to do.”

Some children died as runaways and were found frozen to death in snowy fields; others who tried to escape their abusers drowned in nearby rivers.

Among the most famous incidents involved the deaths of four boys — Allen Willie, Andrew Paul, Maurice Justin, and Johnny Michael — who fled the Lejac residential school in British Columbia on New Year’s Day, 1937.

It was 30 degrees below zero. They were found frozen to death on a lake. An inquiry at the time found one boy, wearing summer clothes, had “no hat and one rubber missing and his foot bare.”

A lawsuit against the federal government and churches resulted in a settlement that included payments to those affected and the creation in 2008 of the commission. Its job is to hold public hearings so people can tell their stories, collect records and establish a national research centre.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is scheduled to end the investigative part of the process and it is believed that the report will be released in late Spring 2015.

In 2008, the Government of Canada made an official apology to Canada’s Okwehonwe(Original Peoples). Many accepted it and thought it was a good place to start a new relationship based on truth and would be a step towards healing the relationship. Others asked what is next?,

What is it that this government is going to do in the future to help our people? Because we are dealing with major human rights violations that have occurred to many generations: my language, my culture and my spirituality. I know that I want to transfer those to my children and my grandchildren, and their children, and so on.
What is going to be provided? That is my question. I know that is the question from all of us. That is what we would like to continue to work on, in partnership.
Nia:wen. Thank you.
Beverley Jacobs, President, Native Women’s Association of Canada, June 11, 2008

Trigger Warning for sexual abuse:

(~Canadian Residential School survivor Sheila Wolfleg, talks about her horrific experiences in residential school and of her life afterwards. It was difficult for her to speak about what happened to her with many pauses so frames have been edited for continuity).

The Government has not shown that it wants that new relationship though, and seems content with having issued an apology and looks to ‘move ahead’ and leave the past in the past. This is obvious in the new ‘Education on First Nations Act‘ proposal that seeks to put education for the Onkwehonwe at risk, through bureaucratic regulations and reduced responsibility for the financial support for their education that the original Treaties agreed to in exchange for use of the land and resources.

These assimilation policies were in the U.S. as well, but the schools were referred to as Indian Boarding Schools. The reasoning for their existence and the effects were the same as in Canada.


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