They found the bodies in the slush and ice of Fraser Lake. Four children, aged eight and nine, lying according to Canadian Press reports huddled in each others arms “capless and lightly clad,” frozen in the final dark embrace of a January night. The temperature was -30 C.
Maurice Justice and Allen Willie were eight years old. Johnny Michael and Andrew Paul were nine. All four were runaways from the harsh confines of the church-run Lejac Residential School. It was Jan. 2, 1937, when their bodies were found roughly six miles from the school and less than one from the Nautley Reserve, which was their believed destination. They had just wanted to go home.
On Feb. 19, the Times Colonist published another CP story, this one bearing the headline “Residential-school deaths topped 3,000: study.” The “study” is being conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with research manager Alex Maass making public preliminary residential-school-death lists. To date, the count stands at 3,000, but Maass told CP it would undoubtedly rise as she and fellow workers continue their search through thousands of archived documents. The true count will never be known, because annual reports on school deaths ceased in 1917. Maass says it had obviously become policy to no longer report them.
While the preliminary report is careful to name disease the largest single killer of residential school children, Maass notes: “The schools were a breeding ground for TB. Dormitories were incubation wards.” And never more so than when the great influenza epidemic swept the world in 1918-19, and infected children were left in school dormitories to become innocent carriers of death.
Tragedies in residential schools are not suddenly being flushed out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 1909, Dr. Peter Bryce, general medical superintendent in the Department of Indian Affairs, warned that between 1894 and 1908, the death rate among native children of school age ranged between 30 and 60 per cent. The governments of the day paid little attention.
In 1922, Bryce, no longer in public service, wrote a book about the dangerous health conditions. The Story of a National Crime is available for free download online. It is not an easy or pleasant read. There is no mistaking his warnings or the fact that the government never listened, or at least never acted.
It wasn’t until June 11, 2008, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally got around to an official apology to residential-school victims, the students and the parents from whom they were arbitrarily taken to be educated and assimilated. He wasn’t the last to say he was sorry for past neglect, but he was close to the last. Pope Benedict XVI didn’t express his “sorrow” for the often deplorable conduct of Catholic priests and nuns until April 2009.
The Anglican church apologized for its role in the shameful record in 1993. Archbishop Michael Peers said he “was sorry more than I can say” to have been part of a system that ripped families apart. In 1994, the Presbyterian church admitted to its role in the sad affair when four church leaders signed a document reading in part: “It is with deep humility and in great sorrow that we come before God and our aboriginal brothers and sisters with our confession.”
In 1998, 10 years before the prime minister got around to it, the United Church of Canada issued its second apology (the first was in 1986) specifically “to those individuals who were physically, sexually and mentally abused as students” in schools in which the United Church was involved.
Suddenly every Christian leader was sorry — but none of them, from infallible Pope to Presbyterian preacher, has explained how a group of religious leaders with such devoutly held views on Christian love got it so universally wrong when it came to applying belief to life.
It is difficult to believe that just a few decades ago, Christian church leaders of every denomination believed they could persuade indigenous people from old beliefs to new by such barbaric means. I am not dismissing individual sexual or sadistic depravities of priests, nuns, teachers or other residential-school staff. But I am less concerned with individual weaknesses than with the conduct of the leaders — political, religious, legal — in those times when evil things were being done in the name of God, and the cause of “aggressive assimilation” was an acceptable gospel message. A time when church leaders blindly believed they were saving souls, their actions sincerely righteous. Like fanatical Taliban Muslims, they were sure conversion to their God and their culture by any means was justifiable.
The four children in the frozen embrace of a love “the church” preached, but didn’t practise, won a minor pyrrhic victory. The inquest into their deaths recommended that in future “excessive corporal discipline of students be limited.” Not banned, just “limited.” A grudging admission — but hardly a cry for forgiveness.
Those didn’t start until 1996, after the last residential school closed in shame.
(For more detail on the four children, Google “Claude Adams, what happened to the children.” Be advised: Though calmly told, Adams’s reporting is disturbing in text and picture.)