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Reconciled to hard truths

Rebuffing accusations of genocide, churches join Aboriginal groups and Ottawa in an effort to account for children who died in residential schools

By Mike Milne

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Records for students who died at schools or were buried in cemeteries may likewise be found in a variety of locations. United Church residential schools in Brandon, Man., and Edmonton had their own cemeteries. But in Edmonton, the burial ground was also used by the Charles Cansell Hospital. Students from Edmonton have reported witnessing burials, but it is not clear whether those being interred were students or hospital patients.
Schools without their own cemeteries may have buried students at community cemeteries, says Rev. James Scott, General Council officer for the church’s residential school steering committee. Students’ bodies may have been shipped home, he says, “but it’s reasonable to assume that in a number of cases, they were buried locally even if they had come from far away. It’s all part of treating people as if they are not important. It’s part of the whole system, really.”

It’s the sort of uncomfortable truth for which the church has already apologized and for which it is now trying to make amends. Whether the treatment of students in church-run schools extended to murder or burial in unmarked graves, as has been alleged, is still not known.

About 250 people have braved the cold and wind-whipped snow to attend a meeting of Kevin Annett’s “Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada” in a downtown Toronto auditorium last winter. Annett and his supporters have plastered the walls with hand-drawn posters. “Full access to church files now!” demands one poster. “Bring those responsible to justice now!” declares another.

A clip is shown from Annett’s documentary film, Unrepentant, that links his long-running feud with his former employers in The United Church of Canada to his allegations about murder, medical experimentation, forced sterilization, pedophile rings and secret burials in residential schools. Then Annett — or Eagle Strong Voice, as he’s known to some supporters — comes to the podium. His delivery is self-assured and low-key. Terms like “torture” and “crimes against humanity” and “mass murder” slip seamlessly into a 15-minute talk supported by overhead projections of archival documents Annett says prove that the government of Canada and the
churches that ran residential schools set out to decimate the Aboriginal population by deliberately exposing children to diseases such as tuberculosis. The talk ends
to warm applause.

A few days earlier, his supporters presented Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean with a letter to Queen Elizabeth demanding that as sovereign she “publicly disclose the cause of death, and whereabouts of the buried remains, of all children who died in Indian Residential Schools operated by the Church of England in Canada, a.k.a. the Anglican Church,” or face a lawsuit. Similar demands have been sent to the Vatican, the United and Presbyterian churches and the prime minister. The United Church response reaffirmed the denomination’s commitment to the truth and reconciliation process and strongly disputed Annett’s claims in the media that the churches were ignoring his demands.

Many of Annett’s allegations about the United Church centre on the Alberni Indian Residential School, run by the church and its predecessors from 1891 to 1973. No one defends that school’s record for student care: Arthur Henry Plint, a dormitory supervisor during the 1950s and ’60s pleaded guilty in the mid-’90s to 36 counts of sexual assault.
Accusations of murder and unmarked graves, though, seem unlikely. Alvin Dixon spent eight years at the Alberni school in the late 1940s and early ’50s; he now counsels residential school survivors in Victoria. During his own school years, he didn’t see or hear about any student deaths or burials. Nor has anyone been charged with crimes at Alberni since Annett began making accusations.   
Port Alberni RCMP Corporal Rob Foster, the officer in charge of Native policing, says it would be “inappropriate” to say whether or not the detachment is actively investigating suspicious deaths or burials at the school, but “that sort of complaint would definitely result in an investigation.” Whether or not there was such an investigation —unconfirmed reports circulate of a fruitless police search for graves on the former school property — no charges have been laid.

Dixon says there’s little doubt children died at residential schools, but in helping “hundreds and hundreds of survivors” fill out claim forms, he has encountered “maybe three such incidents where people have clearly said they know of one or two people dying either through mishap or abuse. And in one or two incidents, they may have been buried on site.

“I can’t relate to the numbers that are being thrown around,” says Dixon, “but that doesn’t mean there weren’t many.”

Preliminary research by Anglican archivists, says Larade, “identified somewhere between 100 and 200 students who had died at school.” Whether the total number of students who died is in the hundreds or thousands, Rev. David MacDonald says naming and finding them is important.

“In many of the Aboriginal traditions, there is a need to allow the spirits to return home,” says MacDonald, who helped to broker the 2005 settlement deal and works as a consultant for the United Church. “So people need to know if there is a place where some of the students at these schools have been buried and to have some sense of closure for the families and the communities.”

It’s messy, uncomfortable and painful, but all part of the truth that may lead to healing for churches, Natives and their communities. In March, still waiting for the federal government to name commissioners, Bob Watts said the pain and effort should prove worthwhile.

“This is really an unwritten and unspoken-about chapter in Canada’s history that has had profound impacts. . . . So it’s important that it be understood and that we find some ways forward.”

With files from David Wilson


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