PoV: Time to reveal all details on lost, young Native lives 0
Susie Jones, one of several members of the Walpole Island First Nation community who is a survivor of the residential school system, stands near a monument. (QMI Agency)
They stand out in any cemetery — not because they’re the biggest or smallest tombstones, although they do range from towering monuments to remarkably modest markers.
No, children’s graves command our attention in cemeteries because we instinctively feel the incongruity of young lives cut short before they have a chance to leave a mark.
We’re reflexively drawn to the abrupt endings and often untold stories behind those lives.
Now, imagine several thousand kids’ graves — some more than 100 years old, some known but not yet found, still others lacking the simple dignity of names attached.
New, unpublished research has, for the first time, put a preliminary figure to the death toll of children while attending Canada’s Native residential school system. Mining through one million records, researchers working for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have concluded at least 3,000 young lives were lost. Disease, malnutrition and accidents killed. So did devastating fires and harrowing ordeals like runaways freezing to death.
With millions more documents to sift through, the final toll may be higher. But with the commission set to wind down in 2014, the clock will almost certainly run out before the researchers can get that far, leaving their work to others. What they do know is deaths were so common that plans for some of the government-built schools included cemeteries.
By now, most Canadians know the grim history of the residential school system, the network of federally funded, church-operated boarding schools and farms that sought to assimilate at least
150,000 aboriginals from the 1870s to the 1990s. Families were torn apart, cultural and linguistic ties severed or damaged and seeds of dysfunction sown.
Until now, it’s been left largely to survivors of the schools to tell the stories — on their own or through the commission set up in the wake of a $1.9 billion lawsuit settlement with the feds and the churches announced in 2005. It’s through those vehicles we know about the abuse and grueling conditions that were inflicted on many of the kids.
Less well known are kids who never made it, a legacy we shouldn’t allow to die either.