The commission that has spent the past five years trying to learn the truth about abuses of children at former Indian residential schools says it’s time to know the names of all of the students who died – and for their graves to be located.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to be made public on Tuesday morning. Its main findings – including the determination that what happened behind the walls of the church-run schools amounted to cultural genocide – were released last spring along with a list of 94 “calls to action” to address ongoing problems.

What is being put forward now is thousands of pages of contextual details, historical data and voices of survivors. The Globe and Mail was given an advance copy of the report.

“As a parent, as a family, when you’ve lost somebody, you need to know everything about that loss that you can get your hands on,” Murray Sinclair, the chair of the commission, said in an interview with The Globe. “You need to know all that can be disclosed, you need to know why they died, where they died, what they died of and you need to know as well, where they are buried.”

The report, which Justice Sinclair says is about 2.3 million words long, presents in tremendous detail the postcolonization history of Canada’s indigenous peoples.

“It will be a more fulsome picture than we had painted in June,” he said. “This report is also primarily about residential schools but it has a lot more detailed information to show how residential schools fit into the overall picture of colonialism and oppression – legal, social and political oppression – that went on in Canada from Confederation even to today.”

Among other things, the report discusses the ways child welfare in Canada has failed indigenous people, the disproportionate incarceration of First Nations inmates and the fact that many Métis survivors of Catholic residential schools are excluded from the settlement that was signed in 2006 with the federal government. And there is also a section on the unmarked and untended graves.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was provided with records of 3,200 students who died at the schools – most from diseases that spread rapidly in crowded dormitories including tuberculosis and influenza, but also by drowning, fires, accidents, suicide and exposure when they tried to run away. But Justice Sinclair believes the real numbers are actually much higher.

“The government claims that archival records were destroyed through floods and through fires. Church records disappeared, they say, for the same reason,” Justice Sinclair said. “So, whatever one thinks of the truthfulness of that, the reality is that those records are not around for us to check.”

But there are ways to get at the information, he said.

It is clear from the data that are available that most of the deaths occurred between 1885 and 1950. Most provinces, during that period, kept records about those who died within their jurisdictions, including their race, their age, their location and their cause of death. If the names of children in those records were matched with the school attendance records, it would be possible to create a more complete list, Justice Sinclair said.

“That is a much bigger task than we were able to accomplish in our period of time and we were around for five years,” he said. So “we have called upon the government to make the funds available for that project to be undertaken and for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation [which recently opened in Winnipeg] to oversee how that will be done.”

Carlie Chase, the executive director of the Legacy of Hope Foundation, which was created to raise awareness about the legacy of the residential schools, is a member of the first generation of her family not to attend one of the residential schools.

“We are always reminded that the survivors today were actually brave children and it is heartbreaking to know that thousands of equally brave children did not survive, that their lives were taken too soon. They died at school,” Ms. Chase said. “So we must be as brave as they were and have the courage to acknowledge the hard truth of their deaths. And that truth is we let them down and we have to do better so it never happens again. So we never have to say there was a death toll at school. For their families to begin their healing, the first part of telling the truth is knowing who those children were.”

The report says that many of the children who died at the schools were buried on the grounds or in nearby plots because the federal government did not want to pay the cost of shipping the body back to the child’s home community. Few of those grave sites were formally recognized by the province or territory, so they have not been maintained.

In addition, schools were often moved and the exact location of the burial sites, in many cases, has been lost over time. The commission recommends that all levels of government, including aboriginal councils, work with school survivors and landowners to find the graves and to erect markers to honour the deceased children.

“Many traditional belief systems say that, without that proper ceremony, the spirit of that person will never get back to where it is that they are supposed to go,” Justice Sinclair said. “So a lot of communities want to be able to conduct those spirit ceremonies for those who died. And they can’t because they don’t know where the body is, they don’t even know whether the person died – at the school or somewhere else.”


What the commission’s report covers

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada takes a broad look at the experience of indigenous peoples in Canada and how their lives have been affected by Indian residential schools. Here are three issues covered in the immense document:

Incarceration rates

While aboriginal people represent just more than 4 per cent of the Canadian population, they account for about one-quarter of the admissions to provincial and territorial jails and about 20 per cent of all people who are sentenced to federal custody.

Murray Sinclair, the chair of the commission, notes that it was not until after the end of the Second World War that the number of indigenous prisoners began to climb. And he says that is not a coincidence.

During the war, recruiters visited the Indian residential schools to persuade boys to enlist. Stripped of their traditional knowledge of hunting, fishing and trapping, and facing few prospects for making a good living, many of the students saw going to war as a good option. Aboriginal men signed up to fight in large numbers, said Justice Sinclair. But when they returned to Canada, the federal government determined that, because they were covered by the Indian Act, they were not entitled to the same benefits as other soldiers, including help with the mental scars. At about the same time, the bans that prevented indigenous people from drinking in public houses were lifted. It was a toxic mix that landed many of the former aboriginal soldiers in jail. And the problem has reverberated through succeeding generations.

The Métis

Although Canada agreed to compensate all First Nations people who spent time in residential schools, under a settlement agreement with survivors that was announced in 2006, that compensation did not extend to the Métis, many of whom attended similar institutions.

“The Catholics ran a lot of residential schools other than those that were in the settlement agreement,” said Justice Sinclair. “And because the Catholic influence in the Métis community was quite substantial, they [the church officials] could, through religious persuasion, coerce families to send their kids to those schools because there really was no other educational opportunity.”

Justice Sinclair says the federal government has argued that Métis children were not subject to the Indian Act and, for them, attendance at the schools was not compulsory as it was for First Nations children. And, because the government did not have a direct hand in running many of the Catholic schools that were attended primarily by Métis children, those schools have been excluded from the settlement agreement.

Justice Sinclair says the Métis children suffered much the same type of abuse that was inflicted on the students at other residential schools. “And they are quite upset by the fact that the government will not talk to them.”

The child-welfare system

Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey of 2011 indicated that aboriginal children account for 48 per cent of the kids across Canada who are in foster care.

Justice Sinclair says that is a situation that traces its roots to the residential school system, which was, in its own way, a failed child-welfare system. The focus of the schools, he said, was to remove indigenous children from their families and “to indoctrinate them into Christianity so that they could become civilized Christian Canadians.”

Parents who were forced to send their children to Indian residential schools were required to sign transfers of guardianship to the government. The government subsequently used that power to make parental decisions, including whether that child would ever be allowed to go back home, Justice Sinclair said.

After the Second World War, the government of Canada began to transfer large numbers of indigenous children over to provincial jurisdiction. That left the provincial welfare agencies with large numbers of those children to be adopted or placed in foster care.

“They found they were filling a need for families who wanted to adopt little children,” Justice Sinclair said. In addition, the agencies were paid by the government of Canada for every child they took into care.

“So the model for child welfare is that there is a financial benefit for them if they take a child into care,” he said. “And that model is still working today.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Dec. 14, 2015 5:32PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 6:30AM EST