Did Children Die At Residential Schools?

Yes. But there was nothing sinister or evil about any of the deaths. They were simply a fact of life at a time when death from disease was a sad, but common occurrence. Children who attended day schools, or no school at all, died in even greater numbers on their home reserves.

Historical records show that children who died while enrolled in a residential school were properly buried, with graves almost always marked with wooden crosses. Most were buried with families present on their home reserves. In many cases, the gravesites and cemeteries were not properly maintained; the wooden crosses deteriorated and blew away, and the burial sites of these children – whether they died at residential schools or on their home reserves – were lost in time.

It is true that a small number of the residential school students who died of disease, were buried in dedicated residential school cemeteries without parents present. However, there was nothing sinister about those deaths or those burials.

Those children received Christian burials, and their deaths were properly documented. It was only distance and logistical difficulties that made it impossible for their parents to attend the funerals.Simply put, there is no credible evidence that there was anything sinister about the death and burial of even one residential school student. Stories about murderous priests, and secret burials of 215 children, with the forced help of six year olds, are simply conspiracy theories that have circulated for years in First Nations communities. Claims of thousands of “missing children” are a distortion of reality designed to extract the maximum amount of sympathy and money from a well intentioned public.

So, what killed residential school students?

The major killer of indigenous children – regardless of whether or not they went to school – was tuberculosis. The tuberculosis epidemic, or “consumption” as it was usually called, was similar in some ways to the sudden emergence of AIDS in the 1980s. AIDS was a frightening, deadly disease. As was the case with consumption, it was not known what caused the disease, and there was no known cure, and people lived in dread of discovering that they had been infected.

Tuberculosis was also similar, in some ways, to the Covid-19 epidemic the world recently went through. Although we knew from the start that Covid-19 was caused by a respiratory virus, it was not at all clear when the epidemic struck what we should do about it. People lived in fear of catching it.

But tuberculosis was a much bigger killer. It caused far more deaths over the centuries as a percentage of population than AIDS and Covid-19 combined. It has killed people for thousands of years, and was only brought under control when anti-biotics were discovered in the 1940s. In 1867, when this country came together as a nation, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death from disease. Even today, in northern areas, such as Nunavut where tuberculosis rates are alarmingly high, or in the developing nations, tuberculosis is still infecting and killing a million and a half people every year.

But on Indian Reserves, in the 19th and early 20th century, the tuberculosis situation was even worse. In fact, some of the prairie reserves had some of the highest tuberculosis rates ever recorded – anywhere. The combination of crowded, unsanitary conditions in the shacks that passed as houses on the reserves, malnourishment that became endemic after the buffalo were gone, and the lack of understanding by reserve residents about even basic health and sanitation practices, resulted in the deaths of thousands of reserve residents. Entire households – and even entire communities – became infected. And too many died.

Other diseases were also major killers. The 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic killed an astonishing number of people. Once again, indigenous people were disproportionately affected, as they had not yet acquired the same level of resistance to the disease as had the general population. Even the usual flu epidemics killed indigenous people regularly, as did scarlet fevers and other diseases. But, for indigenous people, especially, tuberculosis was the main killer. The prairie and northern reserves were tuberculosis killing grounds.

It was from these communities that the residential school students came. Although the exact percentage of how many of these children were infected when they arrived at residential schools is not known, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Peter Bryce’s findings are the best evidence we have. According to Bryce, of the eight schools he examined, every child he examined was infected. In other words, the tuberculosis started on the reserves, and not in the schools. The fact that the disease progressed in some of those previously infected children to the terminal stage should not surprise anyone.

The brutal truth is that those doomed children would have died even if no residential school had ever been built.

The number of indigenous children who never went to residential school, but died from tuberculosis, dwarfs the number who died at residential schools. Those children would have been buried in their home communities. Many of their burial sites have now been lost to time, because their gravesites and cemeteries were not tended, and the gravesites have gone back to nature. The children buried in those lost sites would now be called “missing children” according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) definition. Because all but a few of the children who died of disease while attending residential schools were buried in their home communities, those “missing children” are indistinguishable from the “missing children” who died in their home communities.

Every one of these deaths is sad – whether death came to a residential school student, a day school student, or one of tens of thousands of indigenous children who never attended any school at all – but there was nothing sinister about any of these sad deaths. And the deaths of residential school students are no more, or less sad than the deaths of any of the indigenous children.

There is also nothing more “missing” about the lost burial sites of the residential school students than any of the lost burial sites of the great majority of the indigenous children who never went to a residential school, but died anyway.

So, why is $320,000,000 being spent trying to find long-lost burial places of “missing” indigenous children who went to residential schools while absolutely no money is being spent trying to find the lost burial places of the far larger number of “missing” children who never went to residential school, and died from disease in their home communities? Actually, why should we spend public money to find any burial sites that were lost through lack of cemetery maintenance, when there are so many more important pressing needs?

And, while we are on the subject of misinformation, why are stories being circulated- with absolutely no credible evidence to back them up – that 215 children at Kamloops were somehow killed and secretly buried – with thousands more similar sinister deaths and secret burials all across Canada – again with absolutely no credible evidence to support these conspiracy theories? And why is the federal government rewarding these false claims with millions of dollars, and why is there no real pushback from the mainstream media?

The avalanche of claims about indigenous children being murdered, poisoned and secretly buried are now giving way to less dramatic – but equally accusatory – claims that priests, nuns and others were somehow grossly negligent or downright cruel in their treatment of indigenous children, resulting in thousands of “missing” and “lost” children. These claims include accusations that children died unnecessarily and were carelessly buried by school personnel, and simply forgotten. It appears that the activists promoting these claims realize that people are simply not buying the “murdered and secretly buried” narrative any longer. However, these “missing” and “lost” claims are also emotive tropes with no evidence to support them. All available evidence proves that deaths were carefully recorded, and proper Christian burials – usually on the child’s home reserve, with parents present – was the norm. The teachers, priests and nuns of yesterday were no more or less decent and honourable than are their counterparts today. So, why are they being regarded as brutes and villains?

These are questions that all deserve an evidence-based answer.

They are questions that a group of researchers, writers and academics are indeed trying to answer. I am a member of that group. We have created a website dedicated to answering these question, as well as other unanswered questions related to residential schools. We are endeavouring to provide Canadians with an accurate, fact-based platform that will address the conspiracy theories and other misinformation that are now circulating on these topics. The site can be found at IRSRG.ca (Indian Residential Schools Research Group). There is no fee for making use of the material we have collected.

Readers interested in the subject might also want to visit Professor Hymie Rubenstein’s Substack “The REAL Indigenous Issues Newsletter” where relevant essays are posted regularly.

For those interested in viewing copies of actual documents, such as applications from indigenous parents asking to have their children admitted to a residential school (and, in some cases, letters denying their applications) please view indianresidentialschoolrecords.com Please feel free to access these sites.


Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

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