June 13, 2021
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
During a 1937 outbreak of measles at the Kamloops residential school, a nurse gave student Mary Francois some Aspirin, mustard plasters and brandy after the girl fell ill on May 3.
On May 10, Mary was taken by car to the nearby Royal Inland Hospital. She had been sick with pneumonia, two bacterial ear infections and inflamed kidneys. That day, the school principal sent a letter to her parents — but they never received it.
The local Indian agent phoned them on the morning of May 13. But when the parents arrived at the hospital that evening, it was too late.
Mary was dead from a blood clot in her brain.
Afterward, Mary's father, the chief of the Adams Lake Band, which sits about 60 kilometres to the east, wrote a letter to the Indian agent.
"I would request… when a child of the school is taken sick and requires hospital attention, that the parents or guardian be notified at once."
"In connection with the death of my daughter Mary, while attending Kamloops Indian Residential School," read the letter from Chief Francois, "I would request, as Chief of the Adams Lake Band, that in future, when a child of the school is taken sick and requires hospital attention, that the parents or guardian be notified at once."
The typewritten letter is signed with an "X."
The information about Mary Francois's case is found in a death memorandum from the Indian Affairs department (which does not, in fact, note her age). Mary's record now lies in the holdings of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation alongside 10 other death memorandums from 1935 to 1945, in a folder titled "Kamloops Residential School, Pupil Deaths." The folder is twice stamped with the word "dormant."
These memorandums are a reminder that the threat of death was part of life at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The institution has become a household word since Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains adjacent to the former school's grounds.
The death of students at Kamloops residential school was no secret among the First Nations whose children were forced to go there. Finding out how they died is a challenge, but the evidence that does exist reveals a record characterized by the indifference of authorities, who saw the children as a means to an end that had little to do with their well-being.
CBC News obtained historical records as well as an out-of-print book that, along with the oral history of survivors, sheds light on the lives and suffering of the students who attended the school.
Many causes of death
Survivor testimony and historical records reveal how children died at the institution throughout the years. Many fell to diseases like tuberculosis and measles. Others drowned in the Thompson River, which flowed nearby. Some, fleeing school, tried to hop trains and died. Others died of suicide.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the repository of residential school records gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, found evidence for 51 fatalities at the institution. There are likely more.
The federal government purged three volumes of funeral records from Kamloops residential school, according to listings of destroyed files held by the National Archives of Canada. The Indian Affairs department also destroyed three volumes of Indian agent reports, along with quarterly "returns" for 1956 to 1961 — student lists that would include deaths.
The memories of survivors fill in some of the gaps left by the reports.
Barbara McNab-Larson, who attended the school from 1948 to 1950, often goes down to a creek near her house in Skeetchestn First Nation. It's a place teeming with life and scents that bring her back to the place before her childhood was shattered.
"That was probably the safest time in my life," said McNab-Larson.
When she was five, a cattle truck came to take her to Kamloops residential school. "The first thing they did was take us down to the cleansing room, where they cut off our hair," she said. "Then, they deloused us. Then, they scrubbed us down with disinfectant like we were diseased animals."
McNab-Larson returned home for the summer, but the next year, she said the school came to get her in an army truck.
WATCH | Barbara McNab-Larson talks about her time at the Kamloops residential school:
Not all were so lucky — to live and remember.
Seven years before McNab entered the doors of Kamloops residential school, a student named Florence Morgan became sick there. Her death memo notes that it was at 6:30 a.m. on June 26, 1941; by 6:50 a.m., she was taken to the Royal Inland Hospital. Florence died on June 28 from the viral infection encephalitis, the memo says.
The Indian agent reported that her body was returned by truck to her parents on the Bonaparte First Nation, which sits 90 kilometres to the east of the school.
The viral infection that killed Florence was a common after-effect of contracting measles. Outbreaks of measles coursed through the school during this era.
One of these outbreaks sickened nine-year-old Leslie Lewis. On Sept. 22, 1935, while Leslie was recovering, he suffered an epileptic attack. The nurse at the school gave him three grams of luminal, an anti-seizure medication. Leslie was put in a car and sent to the hospital at 9 a.m. the next day.
The doctor reported that Leslie seemed fine that morning, but the next day he was dead, his memo says. The doctor reported that the measles infection likely triggered the seizure.
The Indian agent concluded the memo by commenting on the overcrowded conditions at Kamloops residential school, where five dormitories accommodated 285 students.
"During an epidemic it is impossible to properly isolate the patients and contacts," typed the Indian agent. "The need for separate quarters to house sick children is evident."
'They still get nightmares about it'
It wasn't just disease. Some students were also driven to suicide.
"This … young boy hung himself in the bathroom. You know, my brother's age group," said Gerry Oleman, who attended Kamloops residential school from about 1960 to 1968, in a recent interview with CBC. Oleman, who is from St'át'imc First Nation in B.C.'s Interior but now lives in Brandon, Man., said the students who witnessed it still can't shake the moment.
"Still today they remember that. They still get nightmares about it," he said. Oleman also mentioned other distraught students: "the runaways and people jumping trains, getting killed jumping a train, you know, freezing to death."
WATCH | Gerry Oleman explains how memories of the Kamloops school still haunt him:
Suicide also haunts the stories of survivors gathered in the book Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was published by the Secwepemc Cultural Society in 2001 and has since gone out of print.
James Charles, who attended from 1964 to 1978 and is featured in the book, knew of three boys who died of suicide. "One suicide was over on the swings beside the brown building," Charles says in Behind Closed Doors. "No one could figure out how that really took place, because it happened in broad daylight, blue sky out, sun was shining."
Charles said there was another child who died on the bell rope and a third found in the orchard. "I think remembering these suicides played a big role in a lot of my anger that I had bottled up inside," Charles says.
According to the book, some of the children who died attempting to escape on a nearby train came from the Lillooet district, about 170 km west of the school.
One anecdote in the book, told by a survivor who signed their story "Anonymous," said their older sister Nellie died at the school. She was sick for months with hepatitis and yellow jaundice. No doctor came to treat her and no one told her parents of her illness until after her death.
"When my father came to the school after hearing of the sad news, he beat the principal and punched him down the stairs," says the survivor in the book. "As much as I want the memories of my education years to be positive, it just can't be."
Another survivor in the book, Eddy Jules, spoke of abortions and a furnace.
"All of us that were going to school would hear the clang, and we would say, 'Oh, that's so and so's friend, and they gave her an abortion,'" said Jules, noting the strangeness of "fire in September or October or November when it's not cold."
Retired senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in a recent video statement that he also heard testimony from survivors about this use for a furnace in residential schools.
"Some survivors talked about infants who were born to young girls at the residential schools, infants who had been fathered by priests, were taken away from them and deliberately killed — sometimes thrown into furnaces, we were told," said Sinclair.
'We mourned these children'
Despite all this evidence of death at the school, no record has yet surfaced of a graveyard at the institution — no shred of paper, cross or stone marks conveying who might lie beneath the earth.
Sister Marie Zarowny, chair of the board for the Order of St. Anne's, which provided teachers and nurses to the school, told CBC News a fire destroyed the first 30 years of records from the institution. She said that to her knowledge, no students were ever buried on the school grounds.
She said that if a child died at the Royal Inland Hospital, the body would not be returned to the school. If a student did die at the school, the body would be sent back to their home community for burial.
"We mourned these children at the school. We had a ceremony for them, but they were … returned to their parents," said Zarowny.
She said that students from Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc who died at the school were buried in the community's cemetery. There are hints of another, now-forgotten graveyard in the records, she said, but couldn't confirm any aspect of this.
"I actually don't know if that reference comes from that school or from another school," she said.
As a result of destroyed records, the true number of students who died at residential school may never be known. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created to delve into the long history of the schools, concluded that at least 4,100 children died in these institutions.
The Catholic Church has faced widespread calls to release all records related to residentials schools.
The same uncertainty shadows the location of graveyards. Many children were buried in unmarked graves, some of which are now lost to time.
One institution that holds large pieces of this history in its archives is the Catholic Church. Catholic entities ran roughly 75 per cent of residential schools.
The church has faced widespread calls, from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on down, to release all records related to residential schools, to augment the incomplete government record.
Zarowny said her order is sharing any relevant records with Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc that could help aid in the quest to identify the suspected remains on the Kamloops residential school grounds.
She said the Sisters of St. Anne's turned over what they viewed as records related to residential schools to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
But the order has yet to sign off on the transfer of its records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said Stephanie Scott, executive director of the institute.
"The [Sisters of St. Anne's] remain unwilling to authorize disclosure of [its] records currently in the possession of the government of Canada," said Scott, in a statement to CBC News.
Several Catholic entities never turned over any records to the TRC. According to an internal TRC document obtained by CBC News, 17 Catholic entities failed to hand over any archival material to the commission.
"There are a lot of records in church archives that we never got to go through," Tom McMahon, the former general counsel for the TRC, told CBC.
McMahon said the Catholic entities that did provide files made their own determinations about what was deemed to be a "relevant" document to hand over.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculata, which ran Kamloops residential school, turned over what it deemed to be relevant records to the TRC, according to the internal TRC document.
McMahon said the Catholic entities that did provide files made their own determinations about what was deemed to be a "relevant" document. He said the Catholic entities held onto records connected to church functions and personnel files.
"When you start talking about personnel records, they did not see that as relevant to the children and education of the children," said McMahon.
"When we talk about deaths of children, you want to think about the church records, the baptism records, death records held by the church. The church told us those records pertain to church activities and were not relevant."
McMahon said one of the potentially richest sources of survivor testimony is held by the federal Justice Department in documents relating to roughly 4,000 civil actions filed by survivors against Canada and the various churches that ran residential schools. He said most of those files were never turned over to the TRC.
Survivors and descendants have long spoken about unmarked graves and children who never came home. Their calls made it to the House of Commons in 2007 and then-Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice, who asked the interim executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to begin working on the issue.
According to a 2008 memo obtained by CBC News, the TRC asked the research branch of Indian Residential Schools Resolutions Canada, a federal agency created to deal with a multitude of civil claims filed by survivors, to conduct an internal records search for cemeteries.
Numerous schools came back with no records of cemeteries, including Kamloops residential school, according to a preliminary report.
But those who went to the institution knew differently. They heard children were buried in an apple orchard.
"We would go down by the apple orchard there to steal apples because we're hungry, and I figured that's probably where [the burial site] is," said Gerry Oleman. "That's the only place I can think of. That's where they are. You know, when you're a child … you hear things."
Children held 'hostage' to quell unrest
The shock that reverberated across this country following news of possible children's remains in Kamloops was accompanied by questions about how there could be no record of these suspected deaths.
John Milloy, one of the country's leading historians and author of A National Crime, perhaps the seminal book on residential schools, said that may be because Indian Affairs never prioritized residential school files.
When government edicts forced the department to destroy records through recycling — for example, as a result of a paper shortage during the Second World War — such files were seen as expendable.
"An awful lot of information which one could have had, to describe the nature of the system, the treatment of the children… a lot of that information was simply lost," said Milloy, who was involved with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Milloy said the Indian Affairs department, which is now known as Indigenous and Northern Affairs, is really a large real estate company, holding in trust reserve lands across the country. It also determines who has the right to live on this property, holding registries with status records and band membership lists.
"So those are the records which are most critical to the department," said Milloy.
"One of the purposes of the schools was to hold the children hostage against the good behaviour of their parents."
He also said that the Canadian public has not properly understood the rationale for the evolution of a residential school system under the country's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. The schools were a means of nation-building and achieving state-security ends, he said.
"It becomes pretty obvious that, as far as Macdonald and other senior members of the Indian Affairs department [were concerned]… one of the purposes of the schools was to hold the children hostage against the good behaviour of their parents," said Milloy.
He said the officials used children as bargaining chips to counter any attempts by Indigenous nations from raising arms against the still-fledgling state.
Milloy provided CBC News with a pre-print academic paper he wrote that details the strategy. The draft title is "Sir John A.'s Hostages." It states that government and North-West Mounted Police officials were increasingly concerned about a breakout in hostilities between the state and armed Indigenous nations such as the Blackfoot in the Prairies, just as Canada was building a railway to deliver goods and people — as well as establish control over territory.
The use of the schools to neutralize Indigenous resistance was put bluntly by school inspector J. A. Mcrea in a 1886 letter to the Indian commissioner: "It is unlikely that any Tribe or tribes would give trouble of a serious nature to the Government whose members had children completely under Government control."
At the time, Canada wanted to avoid a repeat of the wars in the U.S. and feared any new conflicts would eclipse the violence from the rebellion led by Louis Riel in 1885, Milloy's research showed.
A 1879 report by Nicolas Flood Davin, which recommended the creation of residential schools, followed a fact-finding mission to explore how the Americans used similar institutions, the paper said.
"Davin would have discovered this covert purpose for residential schools in his conversations with Carl Schurtz, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and Ezra Hayt, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs," said the paper. "Certainly, for the Department, the resolution of the 'Indian problem,' characterized so often as carrying the white man's burden of Christian duty was, in fact, countering the perceived threat to state security and social purity."
Milloy said that "this is one of the reasons why the Kamloops school is developed in the 1890s, because the situation in the area is tenuous for the government … The schools are also very much part of the colonial process … for the sake of the development of Canada."
The schools used fear and violence — and fear of violence — to bend generations of children under the cross and flag. Much remains hidden from the record about the fate of thousands of children who attended these institutions, but this history is carried by those who came home.
"'You better behave. Don't get out of line, because there's a graveyard and there's also the river.' Those were warnings that were given to us as little, tiny children — five, six years old," said Barbara McNab-Larson of her time at the Kamloops school.
"I don't think you really grasp it at the time, but when your friends disappear and they don't come back, even as a child, you know something's wrong."
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.