Identities, Bodies of Children Who Died in Residential Schools May Be Lost Forever

By Jorge Barrera
May 31, 2012

The identities and bodies of many First Nations children who died in Indian residential schools may be lost forever, says the Ontario Coroner's Office which has been working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sift through one of the darkest periods in Canadian history to find the dead.

"Hundreds, if not thousands" of Indigenous children who went to residential schools died while in the care of the churches and Canadian government, according to Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Many of their parents were never told of the deaths and the bodies buried in unmarked graves across the country.

The Ontario Coroner's Office has been working with the TRC since January to uncover any archival records that could be use to trace children who never made it home. The TRC has taken on the task of identifying and finding the graves of the children who disappeared.

The search for records initially screened about 250,000 files which were narrowed down to 5,000 that were individually examined. The results produced 120 cases that could lead to the identification of children who died in residential schools.

"We expect that there will be some cases which will result either in the identification of a child that was that was no identified before or to a file that the TRC has a lot more information on," said David Eden, regional supervising coroner for operations who has been working with the TRC to find records of these missing children.

Many of the children died from disease, some as the result of punishments, others as a result accidents and even murder. In some cases, their deaths were never recorded.

"We have reason to believe some of the deaths that occurred weren't registered," said Eden.

And, for those where paper marked the moment of their death, shreds may be all that remains and the place where they lie now lost to history forever.

"Because the records are incomplete, we may have a scrap of information about a child who died, but not know where they are buried," he said. "It is awful, but it may be the best we can do in some cases."

The search, however, is extremely difficult, and, at least in Ontario, the trail for children who died before 1965 can go cold quickly. There was no central coroner's office in Ontario before that year and the records were kept by local coroners, said Eden.

"Many of those records do not exist anymore and they're gone," he said.

The exact number of children who died in residential schools remains a guessing game.

John Milloy, who wrote a book on residential schools called, A National Crime, has estimated that, according to records dating back to the beginning of the 1900s, between 24 to 42 per cent of children died in some schools from sicknesses like tuberculosis.

One group, lead by former United Church minister Kevin Annett claims as many as 50,000 children died in the schools.

The Ontario Coroner's Office and the TRC are holding a press conference in Toronto Friday to describe the search for the lost children.

"It breaks my heart, as a human being, as a parent," said Eden. "The idea of having children taken away and never hearing what happened to them…I can't imagine this experience, it is overwhelming just to think about it."

The TRC was created as a part of the multi-billion dollar settlement with residential school survivors. The TRC could not be reached for comment.



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