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Why can’t we find Canada’s “missing” residential school students?


Hymie Rubenstein


First published in The Western Standard on March 19, 2022


At least 3,200 children are said to have died while enrolled in Canadian Indian Residential Schools (IRS) according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 2015 Final Report. More recently, former TRC chair Murray Sinclair estimated some 6,000 children may have never lived to make it home from one of these schools. Other commentators have placed this figure as high as 25,000.

But is there any credible evidence supporting these claims? Rhetoric aside, the evidence suggests such assertions have no grounding in historical research.

One of the best sources of evidence about the fate of the students is the federal government’s IRS Quarterly Returns. Each IRS student in every government-supported school was given a unique number when accepted for admittance, normally after an application was made by their parents or guardians. This registration number appears in the meticulously-collected and detailed Quarterly Returns, one of which is shown below, and was the way the children’s residential school stay was tracked between the school and the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), the government agency legally responsible for funding their boarding and education from the time they entered a school until the time they left.

To provide just one example, the Quarterly Return for the third-quarter of 1950 attached below shows the attendance at the now-notorious Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) of the Honourable Leonard “Len” Marchand (1933 – 2016), a distinguished and highly-educated Canadian politician who was the first Indigenous person to serve in the federal cabinet after being the first Status Indian elected as a Member of Parliament. Marchand also served as Parliamentary Secretary, Minister of State, Minister of the Environment, and as a member of the Canadian Senate.

The Honourable Leonard Marchand

In his autobiography, Breaking Trail, published in 2000, Mr. Marchand mainly had praise for his one-year stay at the much-maligned KIRS, his chief complaint mainly about the food (“… watery potatoes and over-boiled vegetables … I was already missing the pies and cakes my big sisters used to make”). But even this reminiscence is balanced by the recollection that “there was plenty of milk and butter from the dairy herd and slabs of good bread. I soon learned that the thickness of your slice was a status symbol. A thicker crust meant you had a girlfriend who was a big wheel in the kitchen.”

More important are his comments about conditions in the classroom: “…the staff did put a definite priority on giving us an education. The classrooms were big, well-lit rooms, with desks as modern as any you could have found on the west side of Vancouver in 1949 … And the teachers were just as good.”

Marchand also reports that “I was never abused, and I never heard of anyone else who was mistreated at the Kamloops school.” As for the Catholic priests and nuns, “… they meant well by us, they genuinely cared about us, and they all did their duty by us as they saw fit.”

Mr. Marchand’s unique IRS register number was 935 and the Quarterly Return of September 1950 shows he was transferred to a day school at the age of 16. After successfully completing secondary school, he earned two university degrees. And as they say, the rest is history.

Quarterly Return that records Leonard Marchand’s move to a day school

There were surely thousands of accomplished IRS students like Marchand, but most of their stories have been ignored in favor of the sensationalized but unsubstantiated tales of being abused, demeaned, poorly taught, and inadequately fed at these schools.

The real story of the IRS is yet to be told.

The Quarterly Returns, which also present indirect evidence of successful students, were only one of many government forms and documents for which the register numbers were used in communications between the schools and the DIA. Taken together, they contain details of the date of death, cause of death, and place of burial for each student.

The successor to the TRC, The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s (NCTR) Student Memorial Register now contains the names of over 4,000 students who died or “went missing” while attending an IRS, but, to a careful observer, what appears to be missing from the Register is a determined effort to inform the families and other concerned parties, like band officials, whenever authenticated burial places of IRS-enrolled children have been found. Because finding these children is the stated objective of the Missing Children Project and the Memorial Register, the failure to do so for whatever reason — incompetence, sloth, indifference, or political bias — is preventing closure to the families and members of the children’s communities, as well as to Canadians in general.

It is also a betrayal of the TRC’s assertion that without truth, there can never be reconciliation.

One determined researcher, working without office staff and millions of dollars, has spent many hours searching the British Columbia death records, school Quarterly Returns, DIA inquiries into student deaths, and other sources for all 416 of the children who are recorded on the NCTR Memorial Register lists for that province. So far, she has found various types of death records for 265, or 64 percent of them.  Many of the records are full death certificates listing the place and cause of death along with the place of burial. That lone researcher also discovered that most of the children were buried on their home reserves, contrary to the false assertions by many ill-informed or mischievous commentators that students were buried in mass graves in unnamed burial grounds under cover of darkness. The same researcher has determined the fate — described here and here — of all but two of the 51 “missing” children on the Kamloops IRS Student Memorial Register.

The question that all Canadians need to ask is why both the TRC and the NCTR, formal bodies that have operated for a number of years with scores of well-paid employees and lots of public funding — $72 million for the TRC alone — all the while peddling the unproven claim of thousands of missing Indigenous children — failed to carefully comb through the archives, seeking out the same information that this one lone and unfunded researcher discovered in a few short months.

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