The Dangerous Allure of Omitting Facts and Historical Context on Residential Schools

Michelle Cyca’s article in The Walrus about residential school denialism of May 4, 2023, gets one thing right. She mentions tuberculosis. Once. Like many who write about those who suffered […]

Michelle Cyca’s article in The Walrus about residential school denialism of May 4, 2023, gets one thing right. She mentions tuberculosis. Once.

Like many who write about those who suffered at residential schools, Cyca seems oblivious to the context of the times – in denial of it – one might say.   Tuberculosis was the greatest killer of all Canadians until about 1960.  About 60% of the children at residential schools who died, were taken by TB – or – consumption as it was called then.  As Dr. Bryce noted, most of the children who came to the schools were infected by it, many who came to the schools had been orphaned by it.  The ratios of those back home who died from it are much higher than the students who were attending schools where they were fed regularly, instructed on modern health and sanitation methods of the time, and given medical care.

Let us set a frame of reference for the issue of public health and history.

In the course of the recent COVID epidemic many people stood on their doorsteps in the evening and banged on pots and pans to celebrate the commitment of well-paid medical workers on the front line of infectious danger. But the selfless commitment of the priests, nuns, ministers, and Indigenous staff, who worked and lived in residential schools, earning a pittance, who were living with the risk of contracting highly contagious and deadly TB from their small charges, is disparaged daily in the press.

No pot banging for you men and women, acting in the service of G-d with no PPEs, danger pay or special shopping hours.

Thus, let us keep in mind the strange psychological phenomena that swept through society during COVID, as we contemplate a time when, as of 1908, 1 Canadian died every hour from TB during the day, and 2 died every hour of the night. (Wherrett)

Robert Carney was an eminent Canadian historian and former University of Alberta professor and father of the more famous Mark Carney.  Robert Carney’s work is crucial to understanding residential schools as he did not self-identify with the silly moniker of ‘settler historian.’  He wrote before the time of ‘woke’ historians and reporters who try to make history into what ‘should have been, if it were only today.’  He wrote about what was – including the good and the bad – unlike those of today who only write about the bad.

Michelle Cyca’s article attempts to smear any person who brings historical context to the discussion of residential schools, calling them ‘deniers.’ As Robert Carney wrote in his critique of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report (which was a similar study to that of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee reports of today): “In commenting on the appropriateness of historical comparisons, [Norman] Davies states that “to sympathize with those who have suffered does not mean that historians who discuss harmful experiences should abandon their critical faculties, ignore the full range of human catastrophes or avoid all comparisons.” This does not imply that juxtaposing and comparing events will necessarily lead to them being equated. It means instead, according to Davies, that “We mustn’t rush to the conclusion that [an historical event] is unique before we have compared it to other events which in some ways resemble it.”

Thus, it is quite appropriate to compare other institutions of the time.  Carney wrote: “Aboriginal residential schools were organized along lines similar to other boarding schools. This fact apparently formed no part of the Commissioners’ deliberations. Had this been otherwise, they might have acknowledged that their descriptions of Aboriginal schools as “places where boisterous and unorganized games” were forbidden and where there was “employment for every moment” were equally applicable to upper class boarding schools like Upper Canada College. In referring to the “repetitive chores” assigned pupils in Aboriginal schools, the chapter does not mention that they were much the same as the ones children faced daily in isolated rural areas and reserves. But such comparisons would have led to competing analyses and opposing interpretations of residential schooling as an historical event, an outcome which the Commissioners evidently wanted to avoid. Hence nothing is said about the training given Aboriginal children in their home communities being regarded as arduous and unappreciated by some of those on the receiving end.”

What we also never hear from commentators like Cyca, perhaps because she has been misled by settler historians like Sean Carleton, is that Indian Residential Schools were the local social services and medical hub in their time.

Robert Carney explained: “But unlike most other boarding schools whose objective was to school children in a highly controlled residential setting, Aboriginal boarding schools were multipurpose institutions that took in many children who suffered from various forms of social, emotional and physical distress. The chapter contends that these “social welfare” functions did not become prevalent until a decade or two before the schools were closed. The fact is that Aboriginal residential schools always played a major role in caring for children in need.”

We hear repetitive stories from repeaters like Cyca, of children being forcibly taken from their homes to go to residential schools.  In fact, except for removing a child from a dangerous family setting where the child was at risk, attendance at school was voluntary until 1920 and force was rarely used. In fact, the 2011 Lebeuf Report on IRS and RCMP on the role of officers about truancy (p. 62) says that officers were involved to less than one hundred cases between 1905 to 1965; typically, community members would also be involved in truancy searches as there was a danger to the children.

However, it may be that former students are conflating the fact that some family or tribe members were forcibly removed from their families for medical treatment for Tuberculosis.

1914, Amendment to Indian Act: “Section 6 gives the Superintendent General power to make regulations for the prevention and mitigation of disease, etc. This will enable the department to deal effectively with epidemics, to establish quarantine, etc., and to commit to hospitals and sanatoria persons suffering from tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases.”

If we consider the many heavy-handed police efforts during the COVID epidemic, where the police officers were trying to enforce health directives, whether regarding the numbers of people gathered or their physical proximity, masked or unmasked, vaxxed or unvaxxed or unstated, perhaps we can begin to understand the complexities of a time when TB was a very serious threat to the entire community.  There was no cure per se (until the 1950s) and the socio-economic consequences for a TB infected person and their family were extremely destructive.  This was true for all Canadians, but the challenge of language, distance from care, culture compounded the fear for Indigenous people.

A very touching film called “The Necessities of Life” (French: “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre”) by Benoit Pilon shows the complicated challenge of trying to heal a tubercular Inuit man in a Quebec sanatorium where there was no common language. The Inuit man, Tiivii, and his family go on board a Canadian government medical ship up north, where he is diagnosed as having tuberculosis. He is told he must go south, leaving his wife and children behind.  He is reluctant, but his wife insists. In the background we see a child being taken from a mother – both screaming and crying as they are torn apart.

Tiivii arrives in a world beyond his imagination, one of travelling in cars through a city and living in a building made of bricks and stone with stairwells, not a tent or igloo surrounded by low fjords and hills. As with the stories of homesick children at residential schools, this Inuit man tries to run away, longing for his family and the familiar beauty of his vast, open homeland.  The medical treatments are painful, and it is difficult for the doctors and the compassionate nurse to explain why or how this pain will help him get well. Around him are a handful of other male patients, some with horrendous coughing and gagging; some suffering tubercular hemorrhages where suddenly a fountain of blood will spit from a patient’s mouth.

As I watched this beautiful film, it confirmed for me my earlier thoughts that some of the more lurid accusations about residential schools related to allegations of murder and disappearance may be conflations of real events that are actually related to TB symptoms, removal of students to sanatoria, and the pain and horror of medical treatments (collapsing a lung, poking needle between the rib), the gory nature of a person suddenly spewing volumes of blood, people withering away to be like skeletons, people dying.

This is not denial. This was the reality.

As in the film, some people did not recover from TB.  Thus, the fact that former students or family members know there are missing children, is reality.  It is likely that the missing person died of TB (or other causes) and their body lies in a local grave, marked with a simple wooden cross.  For those waiting at home, the person is missing.

The only curious part is that no one really looked until recently.  This raises serious questions that no one wants to let people ask.  It is curious that the first big reveal was in Kamloops, near the path of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.  Thus, claims of ‘genocide’ and mass graves significantly raise the stakes and provide substantial headline fodder for blood thirsty newspapers.  It also meant court testimony from protestors had even more heart-rending commentary, such as that of hereditary Chief Sawses, who claimed he should not serve 28 days in jail for obstructing the pipeline as he had already served 10 years in jail in an Indian Residential School for not committing any crime.  This kind of material takes the Tar Sands Campaign geopolitical trade war to a whole new level.

Michelle Cyca admits in her article that: “My own grandmother, who attended St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, also spoke warmly of her time there.”

But she asks no questions about the sudden surge across Canada, in what appears to be a coordinated campaign of Ground Penetrating Radar discoveries of unmarked graves, followed by this or that Indigenous group making land back claims or launching resource related lawsuits.

Cyca states children died by the thousands due to neglect; how many cases were in fact a rejection of medical aid for TB or other ailments?

Though in the West, during the Treaty negotiations, the ‘medicine chest’ of Western medicines was a key demand by Chiefs, Western approaches to health were not always accepted by Indigenous people, despite the Canadian government sometimes providing an entire hospital.

1913, Six Nations: “After being given a faithful trial of four and a half years the Six Nations’ hospital was closed on March 31 last. In spite of the earnest endeavours of the department, the Indian superintendent, the medical superintendent and the hospital board, it has been found that Indians suffering from tuberculosis will not take advantage of the undoubted facilities offered by the institution for effecting a cure until their cases are so far advanced as to be hopeless, and only a few of the advanced cases entered the hospital. It was, therefore, decided by the hospital board and the council that, the expense not being commensurate with results, the hospital should be closed…An efficient board of health assists the medical officer in enforcing sanitary measures. The council-house, where large gatherings are held, is regularly and thoroughly cleaned after each meeting, carbolic acid being freely used. The medical officer and others have taken advantage of every opportunity of urging improved dwellings, cleaner surroundings, particularly in regard to drinking water, and the general observance of the laws of health. A largely attended meeting was held in the Ohsweken Baptist church on the evening of what was designated ‘Tuberculosis Sunday,’ and addressed by the pastor, the medical officer and the superintendent.” 

As we saw during COVID, our typical concepts of sanitation changed radically as for some time, everything that entered a household was separated and wiped down with sanitizer.  Every store, restaurant, business required hand sanitization before entry.  It was a strange time that divided families, friends and business partners.

Imagine decades ago how bizarre it must have felt for children coming from communal living on a trap line or in tipi to a place with beds and bathrooms where the religious sisters and brothers strictly enforced things like hand washing and strictly enforced no sharing of food or utensils for reasons of public health. Yet their parents had signed their children up to go to school.  Unless one was orphaned, only registered children attended Indian Residential Schools, and there was a waitlist.

1913, Micmacs Agency, Nova Scotia: “Much more care is being taken by Indians as regards cleanliness, it being difficult to teach them the necessity of isolation in case of tuberculosis, as they do not believe it to be infectious.” 

TB itself is a trickster in how it presents.  Often there are no outward symptoms for a long time.  The person simply becomes weaker and more exhausted.  Unless there is a proper physical exam with an Xray, it is impossible to know the real condition of the lungs.  TB can move throughout the body as well, attacking joints and bones, even manifesting as tubercular meningitis, which is most common in children ages 1 to 5.

In previous articles I have mentioned the contemporary work ““Finally when I started falling down”: Indigenous tuberculosis patient experiences of health and illness on the Canadian prairies.[1]  The paper documents the fear and reluctance of today’s Indigenous adults to seek medical care, much of it based on historic experience that patients either remembered or had been told about.  They remembered that people in their communities disappeared for years, sometimes forever if the diagnosis was TB.  Those who returned home from the san told of painful treatments and how they suffered in isolation from family and friends.  In the testimonies in the ‘falling down’ paper, people expressed fear that they would lose their job, or they’d be ejected from their home, family or ostracized by their circle of friends.  Thus, the patients interviewed literally relied on over-the-counter pain relief pills for months, hoping their symptoms were ‘nothing but a cold.’ Finally, their body forced them to seek medical help when the disease was so advanced, as one patient said he did not go to the doctor, “until I started falling down.”

In today’s modern, even sterile environment, it is difficult to turn back the page to a time when TB was rampant when people typically used a cloth handkerchief to sneeze or cough into.  A novel solution was developed in the absence of today’s fancy Kleenex which was the use of newspaper to blow your nose into, and then one could simply throw the paper away (or preferably burn it). Even the poor could ‘afford’ this solution, and it significantly helped stop the spread of TB.  This was a time when laws were written to make it illegal to spit, in an effort to halt the spread of TB in public places.

At the time, when people hemorrhaged blood, often the bedsheets, and even clothes of a diseased or deceased would be bundled up and burned to try and prevent the spread of the disease. Witnessing such events would be traumatizing to any person, let alone a homesick child in a residential school or TB sanatorium.

Just as Indigenous people in many communities did not think TB was infectious, in off-reserve communities, people were terrified that that TB was hereditary as well as infectious. This did lead to some social practises intended to exclude Indigenous people from society as it was widely known there was a higher TB infection and mortality rate among Indigenous people.  Yet those G-d serving men and women in religious orders at Indian Residential Schools sacrificed themselves to the care and education of the children.

Though a microcosm of the burden on society that TB imposed, the impact of COVID on our social interactions, our economy, health care system and personal health care practises, might make us think of how challenging it was, especially in the early days, to care for children who literally had no idea what was intended by some of the practices meant to keep them healthy and alive.

Since not all potential students went to residential or day schools, and most attended on average only 3 years, we must ask the uncomfortable question about why the other members of Canada’s Indigenous society did not maintain their own language, culture and skills that the plaintiff residential school students claim was ‘stolen’ from them?

The plaintiff residential school students are given prominence in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee reports, but in truth, the TRC only interviewed 6,500 people.  While this is a significant number of people, it is really only about 4% of all attendees over time.  We cannot assume that everyone we did not hear from had these same experiences.

I understand from a research colleague that many former staff, some of whom were Indigenous, were too intimidated to testify to support the positive story; they were afraid of recrimination or retaliation. Indeed, many First Nations reserves are rife with drug gangs, which of course is automatically blamed on residential schools, too. Say or do the wrong thing on that reserve and your house might get burned down or you might get beaten up. This is the opposite of the Ten Commandments that were taught at residential schools.

Thus, when Michelle Cyca only includes one mention of TB in her story, rather than explaining the historical context, readers will feel repulsed to read her claim that one quarter of all students who had been registered in residential schools died. The factual corollary to this claim is that three quarters of all students attending residential schools lived, meanwhile back on reserve, the Grim Reaper TB – ‘captain of all these men of death’ – swept through with his mighty scythe.


Michelle Stirling is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists. She researched, wrote, and co-produced historical shows about Southern Alberta under the supervision of Dr. Hugh Dempsey, then curator of the Glenbow Museum.  A shorter version of this article was published in the Western Standard.

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