Commission will probe school deaths

Published July 3, 2007

The Anglican Church of Canada has welcomed the call by Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice for a yet-to-be formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission to probe the deaths and disappearances of former students of Indian residential schools.

“We had anticipated that this would become a mandate of the (commission). We’ve heard the concerns about former students, about how many died and how families were not informed about it,” said Ellie Johnson, who represented the Anglican church in the revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. (The commission will be established once the opt-out period for the multi-billion dollar settlement ends this August. The opt-out period states that if 5,000 of an estimated 80,000 former students opt out of the agreement it could be declared null and void.)

Meanwhile, General Synod members were informed that it is not just former residential schools students but their family members also who need to decide whether to opt out of the revised agreement.

“If they don’t take any action this will determine their future to litigate,” said Ms. Johnson. “They must consider carefully whether to stay…and lose the right to sue government, or take action to opt out and retian the right to future litigation.”

Ms. Johnson said that an investigation is important because “it’s about recapturing family and community histories and being honest and open about the extent and illnesses in the schools; tuberculosis was widespread then.”

Mr. Prentice issued the statement following a report published in April that about half of aboriginal children who attended the early years of residential schools died of tuberculosis. The report cited documents that showed that the federal government ignored warnings in 1907 “that overcrowding, poor sanitation and a lack of medical care were creating a toxic breeding ground for the rapid spread of the disease.”

The Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared Residential School Children, a group of former students, have urged the government to acknowledge the deaths and disappearances of one-time students.

Ms. Johnson said the archives department of General Synod, the Anglican Church of Canada’s governing body, is developing a process for responding to requests regarding burial records of former residential schools students. “The burial records are not in the General Synod archives, they would be held by diocesan archives. We’re assuming that when a child died (while in a residential school), that local clergy would be involved,” said Ms. Johnson. “If they weren’t involved, the death record would have been filed by someone else. But dioceses require parishes to submit records to the archives.”

Nancy Hurn, General Synod archivist, said she and diocesan archivists are working out how burial records might be made accessible. Some diocesan archives are on deposit at public archives.

Meanwhile, in late April the House of Commons apologized unanimously to former students of native schools but Mr. Prentice said the federal government would wait until the commission ends its five-year mandate before issuing its own apology.

Mr. Prentice stressed the importance of awaiting the outcome of the commission investigation saying all the facts and stories about the legacy of Indian residential schools are not yet complete. “I would be very surprised if (the commission’s) recommendations at that time did not deal, as the South African Commission did, with the context and concept of an apology,” he said.

Meanwhile, the National Residential School Survivors Society has published an open letter to Queen Elizabeth II, expressing its “deep disappointment and regret” for the refusal of the federal government to issue an apology to former students. Nonetheless, the group said, “as we wish to progress the well-being of our families and communities we have relinquished the need for an apology.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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