• Sat. Oct 29th, 2022

The threat of death was part of life at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. So why is it so hard to determine how many children died there?

Jun 13, 2021

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).
A photo from 1931, taken at the Kamloops residential school. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)
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.
An undated photo inside a classroom at Kamloops residential school. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)
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.
The folder containing the student death records from Kamloops residential school from 1935 to 1945. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)
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.”