Using ground penetrating radar, authorities recently uncovered the graves of 215 students who died at a former Canadian residential school in Kamloops, BC.
The Canadian Indian Residential School system was set up in 1876 to provide boarding school education for Indian children in Canada. Since one of the primary goals of the schools was to assimilate Indian children into the dominant Canadian culture, it required pulling children from their homes and boarding them at the schools in order to minimize contact with their family and friends.
The schools were funded by the Federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs, but were operated by Christian denominations — the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church and the United Church.
The schools operated until 1996 when the last school closed. It’s estimated that 150,000 Indian children were put through the program that had over 130 schools operating in most provinces across Canada.
It is difficult to know how many children died at the school as there was very poor to non-existent record keeping, and it’s estimated between 3,200 (confirmed cases) and 6,000 children died at the schools. Before the discovery of the unmarked graves, the Kamloops’ residential school had recorded 51 deaths.
According to the National Post, because of the cramped and often unhealthy conditions, tuberculosis was the main cause of the deaths. Some schools were much worse than others.
The National Post recently provided an overview of the horrific conditions in several schools (including physical and sexual abuse), citing several reports and letters written about the schools at the time, some of which were referred to as ‘jail houses’:
Above is a 1933 letter written by Arthur Jeffries, a student at the Sechelt Residential School. “The food is pig food it is not fit for human beings to eat it. Some… apple core, rotten spuds and worms and rotten meat and they force us to eat it that why some boys get sick,” Jeffries wrote in the letter, which was apparently addressed to his father. He added that students were forbidden from speaking to their families in the neighbouring community and that “this school is not a school at all, it is a jail house.” Sechelt had been subject to allegations of poor food and harsh discipline ever since its 1904 inception. In 1922, an unusually harsh inspector’s report declared “I do not think these pupils are well fed,” and the next year, parents would withdraw their children from the school en-masse in protest. A new principal was appointed and funding was increased, but as Jeffries’ letter from only 11 years later shows, even attempts at reform quickly wilted in the face of a fundamentally broken apparatus. […]
The above letter, now held in the archives of the University of Regina, is a 1907 inspector’s report on the Crowstand Indian Residential School. The school was notorious, even by the standards of other Saskatchewan Indian Residential Schools, with a health inspector once calling it “the worst residential school I have had to visit.” The above report details how the school’s principal, a Mr. McWhinney, retrieved some “runaways” and then “tied ropes about their arms and made them run behind the buggy from their houses to the school.” The inspector wrote that McWhinney “has not adopted a wise method” and remarked that his actions had spurred some pushback. (“The Indians say that the children are not dogs.”) Despite this, McWhinney remained principal for another eight years until the school’s closure in 1915. Subsequent reports of poor conditions, abuse and even a sexual predator on staff would similarly do nothing to shake McWhinney’s authority over the school.
For much more on the Canadian Indian Residential School system. READ: ‘This school is a jail house’: Documents reveal the horrors of Indian Residential Schools — In one 1935 letter, a father is told his food will be cut off until he surrenders his children at school