Canadian Indian residential school system | mortality rates

Mortality rates

Portrait of Peter Bryce. Wearing a jacket and tie, he is looking off-camera with an expressionless face
Chief medical officer Peter Bryce (1890)

Residential school deaths were common and have been linked to the persistence of poorly constructed and maintained facilities.[4]:92–101 The actual number of deaths remains unknown due to inconsistent reporting by school officials and the destruction of medical and administrative records in compliance with retention and disposition policies for government records.[4]:92–93 Research by the TRC revealed that at least 3,201 students had died, mostly from disease.[6][4]:92 TRC chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, has suggested that the number of deaths may be closer to more than 6,000.[5][46][47]

The 1906 Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs, submitted by chief medical officer Peter Bryce, highlighted that the "Indian population of Canada has a mortality rate of more than double that of the whole population, and in some provinces more than three times".[4]:97–98[48]:275 Among the list of causes he noted tuberculosis and the role residential schools played in spreading the disease by way of poor ventilation and medical screening.[4]:97–98[48]:275–276

In 1909, Bryce reported that, between 1894 and 1908, mortality rates at some residential schools in western Canada ranged from 30% to 60% over five years (that is, five years after entry, 30% to 60% of students had died, or 6–12% per annum).[49] These statistics did not become public until 1922, when Bryce, who was no longer working for the government, published The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921. In particular, he alleged that the high mortality rates could have been avoided if healthy children had not been exposed to children with tuberculosis.[4][50][51] At the time, no antibiotic had been identified to treat the disease, and this exacerbated the impact of the illness. Streptomycin, the first effective treatment, was not introduced until 1943.[21]:381

In 1920 and 1922, Regina physician F. A. Corbett was commissioned to visit the schools in the west of the country, and found similar results to those reported by Bryce. At the Ermineskin school in Hobbema, Alberta, he found 50% of the children had tuberculosis.[15]:98 At Sarcee Boarding School near Calgary, he noted that all 33 students were "much below even a passable standard of health" and "[a]ll but four were infected with tuberculosis".[15]:99 In one classroom, he found 16 ill children, many near death, who were being made to sit through lessons.[15]:99

Stone cairn erected in 1975 marking the Battleford Industrial School Cemetery. A plaque at the top of the cairn reads: RESTORATION THROUGH OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOUTH, 4S1179-1974. PLAQUE PROVIDED BY DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM AND RENEWABLE RESOURCES.
Cairn erected in 1975 marking the Battleford Industrial School cemetery

In 2011, reflecting on the TRC's research, Justice Murray Sinclair told the Toronto Star: "Missing children—that is the big surprise for me ... That such large numbers of children died at the schools. That the information of their deaths was not communicated back to their families."[52]

Missing children and unmarked graves

The TRC concluded that it may be impossible to ever identify the number of deaths or missing children, in part because of the habit of burying students in unmarked graves.[53][54][55] The work is further complicated by a pattern of poor record keeping by school and government officials, who neglected to keep reliable numbers about the number of children who died or where they were buried.[6] While most schools had cemeteries on site, their location and extent remain difficult to determine as cemeteries that were originally marked were found to have been later razed, intentionally hidden or built over.[55][56]

The fourth volume of the TRC's final report, dedicated to missing children and unmarked burials, was developed after the original TRC members realized, in 2007, that the issue required its own working group. In 2009, the TRC requested $1.5 million in extra funding from the federal government to complete this work, but was denied.[6] The researchers concluded, after searching land near schools using satellite imagery and maps, that, "for the most part, the cemeteries that the Commission documented are abandoned, disused, and vulnerable to accidental disturbance".[57]:1

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