Children Died and Disappeared Because the Government Was Cheap
✎ WAYNE K. SPEAR | June 2, 2021 • Current Events
THE Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announcement of a newly-confirmed burial ground is an instance of shock but not necessarily of surprise. For decades the existence of unmarked graves on and near former residential school properties had been known among the former students, and many of them told me so when I first began researching and writing about the residential school system in the 1990s. Only the scale and precise location of these sites were, and still are, a matter of uncertainty.
The need for an investigation was evident even before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established, on June 1, 2008. Volume Four of the TRC’s final report, “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials,” rehearses the background of the 2007 Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate, a directive of Jim Prentice, at the time Minister responsible for Indian Affairs and the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. Prentice instructed a working group to produce recommendations for research into the disappeared children of the residential schools, only for his successor to reject the recommendations when they came back with a request for funding in excess of $1.5 million.
As the TRC puts it, “the federal government’s denial of this request has placed significant limits on the Commission’s ability to fully implement the working group’s proposals, despite our sincere belief in their importance.” The substance of these proposals was four research projects into topics including student enrolment and illness numbers, disease and death rates, disappearances of children, and the location of cemeteries and gravesites in which students are believed to be buried. None of these studies was within the scope of the TRC’s existing budget, hence the request for additional funds to support an expanded mandate. A scaled-down version of this research was conducted and published as volume four of the TRC final report, and today this volume constitutes the first and perhaps only systematic effort to document these subjects, albeit within constraints partly related to resources but also to a lack of historical documentation.
Where might we be today had the Minister allocated funding to support his Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate? No one can say as certain. But we can note an irony occurring across the history of Indian Affairs, the short-term cost-saving measure that in the long-run costs more dearly. Parsimony was the guiding principle of the residential school system on the day it was created, by an Order in Council of October 22, 1892 which established the government-church partnership as well as the per-capita funding formula. (The 1892 formula was a cut of funding levels Indian Affairs had been paying for industrial and boarding schools up until that date.) From then forward parsimony would keep coin in the accounts of the Crown at the expense of undernourished children and overcrowded buildings, the spread of disease, and other ugliness that is today the subject of class action lawsuits, multi-billion-dollar settlements, and several commission reports.
Over the years I’ve met and interviewed hundreds of survivors (as former Indian residential school students came to be called) in and from communities coast to coast to coast. Their stories have been recorded in books, plays, newspaper articles, and commission reports. But many children did not survive, and others who did survive were forever lost to their parents and families and communities. Some were institutionalized, others placed into adoption, and yet others drifted into towns and cities, never to restore the bonds that residential schools were designed to sever. The two hundred and fifteen children we have read about represent two hundred and fifteen families and many more siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. The scope of this pain is as large as Canada itself. We can never know the experiences of their short lives in their own words. All Canada, and the churches who ran the schools, can do now is support the work of communities like Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. ⌾
Read this article at the National Post.