Following a coroner’s inquiry into the deaths of four truant children, frozen to death on Fraser Lake on New Year’s Day 1937, the headlines in most B.C. newspapers reported no blame for the tragedy should be attached to the priests who ran the Lelac Indian School, about 80 kilometres west of Prince George.
“Indian School Authorities Absolved in Lake Tragedy,” read one. “No blame in boys’ death,” echoed another. And the Catholic priest who ran Lelac suggested it was really the failure of parents to discipline their children that led to the deaths of eight-year-olds Maurice Justice and Allan Willie, and nine-year-olds Johnny Michael and Andrew Paul.
Careful reading of the coroner’s report tells a different story.
School principal Father Patrick MacGrath, testifying at the inquiry convened Jan. 4, 1937, by local coroner C. Pitts, MD, set the scene for casual indifference of staff toward students on the day the drama began. Mark his protestations of innocence carefully: “I had been away all day on Jan. 1, returning at 5 p.m., but it was not until 9 p.m that I first heard that four boys were missing.” Four boys aged eight and nine missing late on a winter afternoon with temperatures already below zero and falling fast, and no one thought to inform the principal for four hours? He added the runaways were “first reported to Bishop Caudert” but didn’t clarify whether the bishop had been alerted earlier or whether he, on hearing the news, had immediately passed the word along.
MacGrath was not seriously concerned. He told the coroner and the six men forming the jury that he “knew the parents of these boys were at the Nautley Reserve and felt quite sure that they — the runaway boys — had reached the reserve by that time.” Later testimony by B.C. Provincial Police Const. H.J. Jennings placed the dead boys a little more than a kilometre short of Nautley reserve when they fell and froze to death. The constable estimated they had been walking for six hours before they collapsed.
MacGrath seemed less aware of distances. He said he was sure the runaways boys had used the railway track for their sub-zero hike because that was the route usually taken by truants “going home.”
“I decided to send a car for them the next morning,” he said, then added as philosophical aside the most damning condemnation of the school he administered: ”When children run away, they are always welcomed home by their parents and not sent back by them.”
The next day, presumably after a good night’s sleep, MacGrath testified “our driver who was also the postmaster” couldn’t get away on Jan. 2 until he performed postal duties. It was noon before the school officials got to question mothers and fathers of the Nautley Reserve — and to search several homes to make sure the boys were not being hidden.
With the children not found by “about four o’clock, I went home,” MacGrath testified. Then “at 7 p.m. I was notified by phone that the bodies of the four boys had been located.” He expressed surprise that the four dead children had fled the school inadequately clothed: ”They could have obtained more clothing from the playhouse and might have taken clothes without being seen.”
Jennings testified that when found, the boys were wearing “underwear, blue denim shirts, overalls, heavy woollen socks, low rubbers. No hats. One boy had lost one rubber and sock. His foot was bare.” Three were lying huddled together. The fourth, roughly 25 metres away, died alone.
The jury was charitable, but not as forgiving as the press suggested. The jury found while “such a circumstance may have been unavoidable … we feel … that more definite action by the school authorities might or should have been taken … that more co-operation between authorities and parents would lessen the incidence of runaways” and that excessive corporal punishment should be limited.
And it strongly recommended there would be ”better understanding between pupils and disciplinarians if the latter were English-speaking.” Amazingly, the Lajac school teacher-priests had limited English — but physically punished students caught conversing in their native tongue.
MacGrath agreed non-English-speaking teacher-priests created serious problems, but was quick to shift responsibility: “Young priests as supervisors of the boys are appointed by my superiors, not by me.”
And just to make sure everyone knew no blame should ever be ascribed to him or the church, his signed statement ends: “Ninety per cent of our children are present [at the school] against their parents’ wishes and are not disciplined by their parent when they do run away, so it is hard to prevent them.” His conscience was clear. Parents were to blame.
Sixty years later in Canada, churches and the state finally grasped what MacGrath and thousands like him had never understood: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” In 1996 — a mere yesterday in time — the last residential school was shuttered forever.
© Copyright 2013