Bearing the Guilt for the Deaths of Children in Residential Schools

May 17, 2022
Source: District du Canada
Residential Schools - Is the Church or the Government Responsible for the deaths by tuberculosis and other causes?

Wait a minute! Breathe! Is the Church at fault or rather was it the Government? 

Was no good work done by the Catholic Church for aboriginal peoples? 

A sober reflection on some facts.

Bearing the Guilt for the Deaths of Children in Residential Schools

Sixty-eight churches across Canada were vandalized, burned, or desecrated by September 2021.  Why would people cause such destruction? Who fanned the flames of such hatred, and what was the motivation? 

  The burnings followed unsubstantiated news reports the previous May that children were found buried at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

  Commenting to the CBC, Rosanne Casimir, Chief of the Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nations in Kamloops, named the discovery  “heartbreaking” but not surprising (1).  First Nations Chief RoseAnne Archibald told the CBC that she called for justice, the naming of the dead, charges to be laid, and a physical return of bodies to their homeland. (2)

  Calls for blame against the Catholic Church prompted the CBC to seek an apology from Catholic Archbishop Michael Miller in Vancouver, who said, “The Church was unquestionably wrong in implementing a colonialist government policy that has wreaked havoc on children, families and communities.” (3).

  Prime Minister Trudeau seemed to defer government responsibility to the churches and called for Canadian flags to rest at half-mast on federal buildings to honour the students who never returned home. The aboriginal communities and their leaders decide it is appropriate to fly them again. (4)

  But what did happen at the schools, what is being covered up, and who should shoulder the blame? 

  Dr. Bryce started public service as a civil servant with the Ontario Ministry of Health and had a reputation as a pioneer in Canadian public health and health policy before being appointed Chief Medical Officer. His first report in 1907, Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, investigated 35 residential schools and detailed the poor sanitary conditions in the schools in the Prairie provinces.  He recommended the creation of hospitals on or near the reserves to combat the alarming rate of tuberculosis deaths, almost 20 times higher than that of non-Aboriginals, and he lobbied for improved health conditions in those schools, revealing the shocking death rate.

  Bryce pointed to the File Hills Colony in Saskatchewan, where 69% of the students died during or shortly after attending, and almost all of them from tuberculosis; he concluded that these deaths were due to poor sanitation and lack of hygiene and demonstrated that the Canadian federal government was directly responsible for the terrible living conditions.

  The Department of Indian Affairs never published the report, but the contents leaked to journalists and resulted in cross-country calls for reform.  These were ignored, and the schools remained open.

  However, the Minister of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, did react swiftly on one front; he suspended funding for Dr. Bryce’s research, claiming that the cost of collecting statistics on child deaths from tuberculosis far outweighed suggestions for the improvement of conditions. 

  In addition, Mr. Scott interfered with Bryce’s presentations at academic conferences, resulting in his removal from the departmental team rather than receiving an expected promotion.

   Outraged by the situation, Bruce published the second report in 1922, The Story of a National Crime, which was the first publicly available report on residential school illness and death rates, and he argued that Minister Scott and the Department of Indian Affairs as a whole had neglected the health needs of Aboriginal people.  He called it a “criminal neglect of treaty promises.” (5). Dr. Bryce was now joined by other physicians protesting residential school conditions.

   In July of 2021, Jacques Rouillard, retired professor emeritus of the Department of History at the University of Montreal, stated that the responsibility for the (residential school) tragedy rested entirely with the successive Canadian governments that financed them and not with the religious communities which responded to the schooling objectives set by the Department of Indian Affairs. 

  He reported that in the eyes of the government, the “schools are seen as engines of cultural and spiritual change,” and the “savages” will become “Christian white men.” The government decided on a radical, inhumane method: taking school-age youth from their families against their will.

  Rouillard pointed out that many orphanages were located in very remote areas. The bodies could not be kept for long, so half of the children who died at the school were buried in the adjoining cemetery or the parish cemetery. This is thoroughly examined in his excellent Dorchester Review article, In Kamloops, Not One Body Has Been Found. (6)

  Historians Jim Miller and Brian Gettler, who focused their research on First Nations, backed this up and wrote that wooden crosses were placed where children were buried in cemeteries and according to Catholic rites. The wooden crosses would take little time to disintegrate. (7)

  Dr. Scott Hamilton wrote a well-rounded 44-page examination of the issue that exposes media manipulation that continues to accuse the Church of neglecting, abusing, and abandoning children in their schools, only to hide them buried on the grounds.

  Dr. Hamilton, an anthropologist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in 2008, to address issues related to “survivors, families, communities, and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience.” The resulting six volumes and 94 Calls to Action and their work continue under the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

  However, Dr. Hamilton said that the media coverage does not present all the facts and does not balance the historical problems of 100 years of operating 150 schools in Canada with communicable diseases rampant during the 19th and 20th centuries. Dr. Hamilton further explained that graves were not hidden. Still, problems arose because Indian Affairs wanted to keep burial costs low, so instead of sending the deceased back to home communities, students, teachers, religious personnel and community members were often buried nearby. Indian Affairs and municipalities did not accept responsibility for the cemetery maintenance, leaving it to the overburdened school staff.  Wooden markers and fences disintegrated, and vegetation became overgrown; thus, years of neglect took their toll.

   Experts Dr. Bryce, Jacques Rouillard, Jim Miller, Brian Gettler, and Dr. Hamilton concur that there was no intent by the local religious operators of the schools to hide graves. Children died not from malice but from diseases made worse by deplorable living conditions through inadequate funding by the Department of Indian Affairs. Dr. Hamilton’s report is recommended reading for the most current reasoned facts on the entire issue. (8)

Essential pieces of the history of Canada, its churches … community churches where people congregate today, were burned in the summer of 2021 with little outcry from politicians as the media continued its narrative. The Catholic Church was called upon to apologize for a situation that was not of its making but a deflection by the Government of Canada.



Dr. Bryce, The Story of a National Crime.


(8) Dr. Hamilton’s 44-page report.