The recent discoveries of more than 1,300 unmarked graves at the sites of four former residential schools in western Canada have shocked and appalled Canadians. Indigenous peoples whose families and lives have been haunted by the legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schooling system have long expected such revelations. But the news still opened painful wounds.
The testimony of dormitory survivors has long been filled with stories of students digging graves for their classmates, unmarked burials on school grounds, and children who disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Many of these stories were heard by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which was founded in 2008 and collected testimonies from over 6,750 survivors. The final report of the TRC 2015 made it clear that further salvage of unmarked graves at the schools was inevitable.
The goal of Canada’s Indian boarding school system was at least shared with that of its American Indian boarding school counterpart: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” in which manual labor, religious instruction and cultural assimilation were in the foreground. The TRC final report concluded that the Indian Residential School system was an attempted “cultural genocide,” but the increasing number of unmarked graves recovered suggests something even darker. Given that only four of the 139 state residential schools have identified more than 1,300 graves with ground penetrating radars, the current official number of 4,120 known students who have died in the schools will be only a fraction of the actual total.
Boarding school system apologists have argued over the past few weeks that the children buried in these schools have largely died of diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) and that schools have done their best to provide education and medical care to First Nations, Inuit and Métis children To provide care at a time when their communities were ravaged by similar diseases. But even a cursory reading of the historical literature on boarding schools shows how wrong this way of thinking is.
The reality is that conditions in schools themselves have contributed most to the often shocking death rates among students. In 1907, Indian Affairs chief medical officer Peter Bryce reported some really troubling results to his superiors. After visiting 35 government-funded schools in western Canada, Bryce reported that 25 percent of all children who attended those schools had died; at one school it was 69 percent. While Bryce reported that “the almost always reported cause of death is tuberculosis,” he did not consider this to be natural or inevitable. Instead, Bryce blamed the schools themselves for those appalling death rates, which were poorly built, lacked adequate ventilation, and often had sick students in dormitories with their healthy classmates.
Bryce wasn’t the only one issuing the school warnings. In the more than 100-year history of the system, school inspectors, school principals, medical officials and Indian agents have repeatedly warned of the unhealthy conditions in schools. This archive record describes the inadequate medical equipment in schools, non-existent isolation rooms and the lack of school nurses. It also documents the constantly overcrowded and dilapidated buildings with poor ventilation and inadequate heating, and the pathetically inadequate nutrition of the students.
The topic of nutrition and nutrition in particular speaks for how the poor conditions in schools affected the health of the students. As historian JR Miller writes, “’We’ve Always Been Hungry’ could serve as a slogan for any retired boarding school organization.” The TRC gathered haunting testimonies from survivors, including Andrew Paul, who spent his time at the Aklavik Roman Catholic residential school in the Northwest Territory described: “We wept to eat something good before going to bed. Often the food we had was rancid, full of maggots and smelled. “
Malnutrition naturally weakened children’s immune systems, making them more susceptible to tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. In the case of TB, studies have consistently shown that malnutrition, as frequently described by Paul and other survivors, results in significantly higher mortality rates in infected individuals. And as our own research has shown, this would also have resulted in a much higher lifetime risk for a whole range of chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
The government and church were well aware of the levels of hunger and malnutrition in schools both before and after Bryce’s devastating report. In the 1940s, for example, a number of school inspections by the Federal Nutrition Department found poor catering in schools and widespread malnutrition almost all of the time. After attempts to improve education for school chefs failed, the head of the nutrition department, LB Pett, decided to take the poor health of the children as an opportunity, the effectiveness of various experimental nutritional interventions (and non-interventions, it turned out) in nutrition malnourished children.
The result was a series of nutrition experiments carried out on nearly 1,000 children in six boarding schools between 1948 and 1952. This included a double-blind, randomized experiment examining the effects of dietary supplements on children with clinical signs of vitamin C deficiency, with half of the students given placebos and the other half given vitamin tablets; a study of the effects of an experimental fortified flour mixture containing, among other things, ground bone meal at St. Mary’s School in Kenora, Ontario; and a study of the effects of both insufficient and adequate milk consumption on a population of children with clinical signs of riboflavin deficiency at the Alberni School in British Columbia.
Neither of these experiments did anything to address the underlying causes of malnutrition in schools, which was simply that the food provided to students was inadequate in both quantity and quality. According to Pett’s own calculations, the federal grant per capita in most schools was often only half that for a balanced diet. The same was true of almost all areas of the boarding school system, which was structurally underfunded from its inception until the last school closed in 1997. Compared to the provincial-funded public schools and boarding schools, the boarding schools received little funding. In Manitoba, Indian Affairs paid $ 180 per year for dormitories in 1938, while boarding schools like the Manitoba School for the Deaf and the Manitoba Home for Boys received $ 642 and $ 550 per year, respectively, from the provincial government. In comparison, Indian boarding schools were funded at a per capita rate of US $ 350.
A similar picture emerges when we look at the type of health care provided to boarding school students diagnosed with tuberculosis – an impact disease made worse by boarding school conditions. In the 1940s, students with TB were sent from boarding schools to racially segregated Indian hospitals or TB sanatoriums – usually without their parents’ knowledge or consent – where they often stayed for years. Indian hospitals and sanatoriums, like residential schools, were funded at a much lower rate – often only 50 percent of the per capita cost for non-indigenous patients in provincial and community hospitals and sanatoriums – meaning that health care for indigenous child patients with TB was inferior .
Indigenous patients, some as young as newborns, were also more likely to receive permanent debilitating surgeries and were kept in hospital for much longer than non-indigenous patients. This was partly because Indigenous patients could not be “trusted” to follow a drug regime at home and partly because the hospitals were part of the federal government’s assimilation program for indigenous peoples. The longer patients, and especially pediatric patients, stayed in the Indian hospital, the more likely it was that they would lose their indigenous languages and their connections to their home communities.
Similar to the practice of boarding schools, hospital and sanatorium administrators carelessly informed families of the circumstances surrounding the death of a child where it was buried or, worryingly, that the underage patient had died at all. Many families still have no idea what happened to loved ones who went to these facilities and never returned.
It is clear, then, that boarding school apologists’ claim that these children “only” died of TB is ultimately an attempt to wash away what many boarding school survivors and a growing number of scholars, including us, call genocide have to stop completely. Many children died of tuberculosis as well as measles, flu and other infectious diseases. But it is clear that this is chronic and intentionally actually underfunded institutions caused the high death rate among college students. According to the government’s own records, it is also indisputable that generations of government officials and politicians knew that the below-average conditions in schools were killing children and decided not to do anything.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views of the Author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.