Ottawa, Ontario June 21, 2021
Recent accounts of 215 indigenous children buried and forgotten in a cemetery on a residential school grounds in Kamloops are shocking. According to these accounts the cemetery was described as a mass grave (the term usually describing war crimes and massacres) of children who were neglected, abused and abandoned in the residential schools and buried in the cemetery to hide their deaths.
However, the report of Dr. Scott Hamilton, Anthropology Department at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, who was retained by the National Centre Truth and Reconciliation to address this question, provides a different record.
Dr Hamilton’s report can be found at: https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/AAA-Hamilton-cemetery-FInal.pdf
Dr. Hamilton’s report, based on available documentation, indicates that at least 3,213 children were reported to have died in residential school over a period of approximately 100 years
According to Dr. Hamilton, communicable diseases were a primary cause of poor health and death for many Aboriginal people during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Tuberculosis, for which there was no cure, was rampant during this period. It affected Aboriginals more than other Canadians. Some children had likely contracted the disease prior to attending the school, but others were infected within the crowded, and poorly constructed residential school, built by the Department of Indian Affairs, not by the various churches.
The 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. These schools were intended to provide basic literacy to acculturate children to non-Aboriginal social and religious values, and to provide vocational training.
It was not until 1883 that the Canadian Government under the Indian Affairs Department took control of and established larger institutions, known as the “residential school system”, for Indigenous children which were to provide both academic and industrial training, with an eye to aid their employment, independence and success within the increasingly dominant Euro-Canadian society. The 1920 amendment to the Indian Act gave to the Department of Indian Affairs the authority to send any school-age Indigenous children to a day or residential school. It was not until the early 1970s that the number of residential schools in operation began to decline sharply, and finally ceased operations in 1996.
The Burial Policy of the Department of Indian Affairs
Indian Affairs did not have a formal, written policy on burial of children from residential schools until 1958, which was fully 75 years after the rapid expansion of the residential school system. The practice of the Department was to not pay funeral expenses unless the cost of long-distance transportation was less than the cost of burying the student where he 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 bodies of deceased students back to their home communities.
The most cost-effective way of doing this was to undertake burial in a cemetery on school grounds. Such cemeteries often contained not only the bodies of students, but also those of teachers, their relatives, and religious personnel in the schools who had died while working there. Over time, the wooden crosses marking the graves deteriorated, as did the fencing surrounding these cemeteries. Another problem was the maintenance of these residential school cemeteries. Indian Affairs did not accept responsibility for maintaining them. This responsibility fell on the religious congregations which operated these schools with inadequate government funding. Another problem was that these residential school cemeteries were also sometimes used for burials of members of nearby municipalities, but the municipalities did not accept responsibility to maintain the cemeteries.
It seems that throughout the history of the Indian Residential Schools, there were financially driven procedures and barriers that prevented the return of deceased students for burial, and the maintenance of the cemeteries near the schools. The wooden markers on the graves disintegrated over time as did the fences surrounding the cemeteries which became heavily overgrown by forests. Over time this made it difficult to determine the parameters of the cemetery and to learn about the individuals buried within them. There is no evidence whatsoever of an intent to hide these graves. Further, there is no indication that the children buried in these long-forgotten cemeteries died of abuse or neglect.
The story of the residential schools is heartbreaking from many perspectives. However, it is not reasonable, based on the facts on record, to accuse the Catholic Church and other faith organizations of neglect of the children or callous behaviour towards them that led to their death. If there is any fault, it lies with federal Indian Affairs which did not provide adequate funding for the residential schools, the children and the cemeteries.