Unexplained residential school deaths haunt native communities;
Posted By SUE BAILEY, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Posted 11 hours ago
Gilbert Johnson starkly recalls being hauled from his bed as a boy at the Port Alberni native residential school before he was "severely beaten" by a dorm supervisor.
"I got caught crying under the blankets at night over my buddy's death," he said.
"You were not allowed to cry for him, and you couldn't even spend a day at home mourning your buddy."
More than four decades later, Johnson, now 54, still doesn't know why his friend Mitchell Joseph suddenly died one night at the school on Vancouver Island.
"That young boy was an innocent boy. He couldn't have been any more than 11."
Port Alberni is notorious for the number of children raped and beaten by dorm supervisor Arthur Henry Plint, who was described in court as a "sexual terrorist" and sentenced to 11 years in 1995. He is now deceased.
Mitchell Joseph's death was never explained, Johnson says.
And he was far from alone. Untold numbers of aboriginal children forced to attend institutions that were meant to "Christianize" them never made it home.
It will fall to the five-year truth and reconciliation commission to decide if it can and should explore what hap- pened to students who were there one day, gone the next.
A working group of former pupils, native leaders, church officials, government staff and historians is to make related recommendations soon, said commission spokeswoman Kimberly Phillips.
Its work is separate from the commission but supports the mandate "to create as complete an historical record as possible of the Indian residential school system and its impacts," said Phillips.
"We have heard from aboriginal elders that this is first and foremost a human issue that must be handled with dignity and respect."
Who will pay to trace the fates of missing children is an open question, however.
It's estimated the required research will cost at least $20 million -one-third the commission's total $60-million budget.
"Our government agrees that this is an important issue," said Ted Yeomans, a spokesman for Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, when asked if Ottawa would foot the bill.
"We will discuss it," he said, with the commission once it has seen the working group's report.
Families often weren't notified until months later (often not at all) that a child had died. Bodies were frequently buried at the schools instead of being returned to loved ones for spiritual ceremonies that are crucial to native custom.
Federal records indicate that tuberculosis killed thousands of students - as many as half the roll call in the early 1900s -and that sick kids were housed alongside healthy ones.
Influenza also felled many among the roughly 150,000 children who passed through 132 schools from 1874 until most were closed in the 1970s.
But there's no official record of how many other youngsters died. Into that gaping void has flowed a stream of unproven claims and rumours of abusive staff who got away with murder, their victims buried in unmarked graves or disposed of in other ways.
Finally confirming or debunking some of that longstanding speculation will be "very, very expensive," says author and historian John Milloy, one of Canada's leading researchers on residential schools.
"Particularly if it's to fall within (the commission's five-year) time frames."
Milloy helped craft recommendations for the truth commission on how to work through a massive collection of federal and church records that, if stacked skyward, would soar 750 metres.
They don't include a potential motherlode of details in provincial death records, or the priceless wealth of information that could be gleaned from former students like Gilbert Johnson.
"We didn't come up with a firm estimate, but $20 million is probably a safe and maybe even a low guess to figure all that out," Milloy says.
So many people are clearly haunted, he stressed.
"I've gone across the country. People have come to me and said: 'Can you find my uncle? . . . He died in that school and nobody knows where his body is.'
"I think we have to show some sort of concern for who and where they are. And communities want it. I mean, it's part of the whole reconciliation process to treat this in a serious fashion."