Understanding Canadian Residential Schools

Analyzing the Data

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

Sir John. A. MacDonald, 1879

Over the past few weeks, 1,287 potential children’s remains have been discovered using ground penetrating radar at unmarked grave sites at or near five former Canadian residential schools (IRS).  That is on top of the 2,875 deaths identified on the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) website prior to the completion of these searches. These almost 3,000 deaths are registered across 139 residential schools recognized under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and include 202 registered deaths where the school the child attended is not known.

We know there will be many more remains found as similar searches are performed at former IRS locations across Canada, although I am not sure if these searches are possible at sites that are now occupied by things like subdivision as is the case in Whitehorse Baptist Indian Residential School in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories, or a Tai restaurant like at the former site of Coqualeetza Indian Residential Reserve in Chilliwack, British Columbia. We have also been made aware that the NCTR has experienced challenges in obtaining the records 3 for these schools including from both the Catholic Church and our government to highlight only a couple of the challenges the NCTR has faced trying to document the IRS system.

The news of these remains being found inspired me to look a little deeper at the data currently available on the NCTR website and sent me down a two week path of discovery. The results of that research can be found in a Google Sheet and Google Map that I have linked below. All of this data was input manually so it cannot be guaranteed to be void of errors, but it none-the-less provides a summary of the data contained on the NCTR site thus far.

Canadian Residential School Data Analysis (Google Sheet)

Canadian Residential Schools (Google Map)

Perhaps as in-depth data is released relating to things like reported abuses at each school, that could be included within this summary in the future as well. A list of those that reported health and issues of abuse at these schools would also be valuable, like that of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce (Chief Medical Officer for Canada’s Department of the Interior and Indian Affairs – 1904-1921), where he identified on November 15, 1907, that Indigenous children were dying at alarming rates. Dr. Bryce also published ‘The Story of a National Crime on January 1, 1922, exposing the Canadian government’s suppression of information on the health of Indigenous peoples. 1

There have been a lot of conversations about the recent finding of these unmarked graves these past few weeks, and it has been inspiring seeing friends, family, and acquaintances (some of whom were not known to often share social or political messages on their personal social media accounts), showing their support for our Indigenous brothers and sisters, including things like making their profile photo orange or using Every Child Matters frames. Seeing thousands in the streets in places like London or Toronto, wearing orange on Canada day were also beautiful images of hope and solidarity.

Although the news of the findings of these remains has been tragic for Indigenous and non-indigenous alike, one of my favorite messages from an Indigenous friend was that they weren’t looking to make their non-indigenous friends feel guilty for residential schools by sharing their feelings about these discoveries – they simply wanted the truth to be known.

Now is a good opportunity to learn about our shared history in Canada and the wonderful spirits, languages, belief systems, stories, and traditions we tried to (thankfully) unsuccessful break through the 168 year history of Canadian residential schools. I have provided links to a few resources in the second to last tab of my Google Sheet, including book and film lists.

Soon after the Doug Ford government took office, the Ministry of Education cancelled the Indigenous curriculum writing sessions that were to occur just days after his announcement that these sessions would no longer proceed. There was no explanation and almost three years after this gathering was to take place, this work still has not happened. In 2019, Ontario’s Indigenous high school curriculum was updated for the first time in almost 20 years, but these classes are not mandatory. 2  Now would also be a good time to contact your local member(s) of parliament to ask them why this learning is not mandatory. Did you know that every student in Germany will visit a concentration camp as part of their learning about the Holocaust?

These recent discoveries and the stories of these schools and their survivors exist with or without the governments support for ensuring that all Canadians learn the full story of our countries past, but none of us should want to hide behind a veil of ignorance either. Generations of future elders and knowledge keepers were lost due to these beautiful children being ripped from the arms of their loving families and from the hearts of their communities and support systems. As a father, this breaks my heart on so many levels.

Also at threat of complete loss were the languages of our First Peoples, including that of Indigenous musician Jeremy Dutcher’s ancestors. There are less than 100 fluent speakers of the Wolastoqiyik language today.

Our countries First Peoples are protectors. As we watch the number of children’s remains rise over the coming months, as we learn more about residential schools and Indigenous history, I hope more of us are encouraged to research issues like 1492 Landback Lane, Douglas Creek in Caledonia, Standing Rock, or any future land, rail, or road occupations.  They have been trying to tell us something. They have been since we first ‘discovered’ this land.

I am not a religious man but if being Indigenous was a religion I could make my own, I would have long found my faith throughout a learning journey that started 17 years ago within the first sweat lodge ceremony to be performed in the Red Hill Valley in over 200 years, and continues today as I endure to continually expand my knowledge.

I’m actually sad for all of those who have played a part in our countries residential school system and the hiding of these facts. Any man that ever thought this was the right thing to do, obviously never had an opportunity to truly know a wonderful people rich with culture, traditions, and belief systems, or the gifts their spirituality bares for all who call Turtle Island home.

In the coming weeks, conversations surrounding Sir John A. MacDonald statues or names of schools like Ryerson will continue. I send good thoughts to those fighting these causes and those in positions of power charged with ensuring the decisions they make come from a good place. In the case of the Sir John A. statute, there are those who wish to see the statue stay, and those that would love to see it tumble and fall. For us to move forward in a good way, all voices must feel they are heard and respected but for this to happen, our leaders must finally engage in these conversations.

For those that are looking to be part of these discussions, I encourage you to check out author Irshad Manji’s Moral Courage YouTube channel for a story about the Confederate flag in Mississippi. It’s about polar opposite views and the way a community came together to discuss this contentious issue in an effort to hear and respect one another’s perspectives. Stay tuned for a documentary on this specific story called ‘Mississippi Turning’.

Lastly, if you were watching CBC’s The National last night after Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens’ first win in the Stanley Cup finals, you would have learned a little about enfranchisement and individuals who gave up their Indian status to ensure their children would not have to endure the same horror’s they did within the residential school system. Imagine having to give up who you are, to keep your family safe. Another reason to email your government to let them know you are watching. 4

I am thinking of my Indigenous friends, their families, and all of those traumatized by these and future discoveries of children who never made it home.

And that’s The Point.

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.” [emphasis added]

Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, 1910

1.From The Canadian Encyclopedia residential schools times
2.Ontario’s new Indigenous curriculum arrives with many questions left unanswered
3.Why retrieving former residential school records has proved so difficult

Leave a Reply