The federal government is mapping burial sites at former residential schools as researchers try to identify how many of the estimated thousands of native children who went missing from the schools are buried in unmarked or anonymous graves.
Cemeteries scattered across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario have been identified by researchers. Some of the graves have single white wooden crosses bearing no name. Others do not include even a cross.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked for the material before its head, Mr. Justice Harry LaForme, resigned unexpectedly last week after accusing the two other commissioners of being too focused on the commission's mandate to uncover truth about residential schools, at the expense of reconciliation.
Cemetery research is part of an attempt by the federal government to understand precisely what happened to the residential school students who disappeared.
It is a massive and sensitive issue. Native leaders and successive federal governments have said they simply do not know who or how many students of the residential schools even died, never mind where they might be buried.
While many community leaders, including elders and a former United Church minister, have spoken of unmarked graves on the sites of residential schools before, this is the first time federal researchers have attempted to compile documentary evidence as to the extent of these discoveries.
The material obtained by The Globe and Mail was completed by two researchers at Indian Residential Schools Resolutions Canada.
Their findings, submitted in an April, 2008, report, reveal several schools had cemeteries on school grounds.
The reason for the placement of cemeteries on the school grounds is not given in the research documents. But in the case of two schools in particular, the researchers found detailed documents describing graves without markings.
Indian Affairs documents reveal bodies were accidentally unearthed in 1992 on the grounds of the former Muskowekwan Indian Residential School in Lestock, Sask., which was run by Catholic missionaries. The graves were uncovered during a construction project to build a new sewer line on the property.
"On July 21, 1992, workers with N.I.S. Construction Ltd. uncovered three unmarked graves," the Indian Affairs document states. "On July 22, an additional 15 graves were encountered. They were located in a row paralleling the new gravity sewer main north of residence 0210-01. The contractor indicated there was evidence of another row of graves north of the first row encountered ... All remains unearthed were placed in plastic bags and stored in a locked building."
The document says the local band council was then notified and construction was halted. The band manager for Muskowekwan First Nation declined comment for this story, as did the manager of the youth centre now operating in the former residential school.
At another school, the St. John's Indian Residential School in Alberta (also known as Wabasca Residential School), the researchers found a document from 1961 describing how the principal came across an unmarked cemetery. A second letter indicates the unidentified principal ultimately cleaned up the site and erected 110 white crosses.
"The place was a terrible mess, so much underbrush," according to one of the letters. "Even though it is not finished, one can see a great improvement in it all, at least it is not woods now."
Anglican priest Richard Waye has been serving the Cree community of Wabasca for the past nine years. He said the community's large graveyard dates back to 1895 and is well maintained by the community, including support from the Big Stone Cree Nation. Rev. Waye said old crosses are replaced with new ones.
"I've never heard anything like that," he said when told of the 1961 entry by the principal. "If it ever happened that the cemetery had come into disrepair, I don't think that it would have been because of any lack of respect. ... Everything here is well maintained and it's respectful."
Rev. Waye said "99.9" per cent of the people attending his masses are Crees with ties to the residential school.
"My impression is that people still attend the church because of the positive experience they had as children in St. John's school," he said.
Detailed records related to the Edmonton Indian Residential School include a principal's letter from 1955, stating: "Some years ago the Indian Affairs branch asked for room on the property ... for a small graveyard in which to bury deceased Indians and Eskimos from Camsell Hospital whose homes are too far in the North to return the bodies for burial. The boys at the School keep the ground in reasonable condition for no remuneration but they get paid for digging graves."
Another reference to a document from 1945 suggests the Alberta Blood band council was aware of a cemetery at the Blood Indian Residential School (also known as St. Mary's), and wanted the graves dug deeper to prevent "effluvia" near the girls' playground.
The researchers found a comment on the issue from the federal Indian Agent, stating: "While it is appreciated that in Winter particularly, it is difficult to get the Indians to do the work suitably, may we ask that this request be placed before the Indians when digging Graves."
The day after a Globe and Mail investigation reported in April, 2007, on the fact that thousands of native children likely died at Indian Residential Schools due to diseases like tuberculosis and possible neglect, the Conservative government promised to investigate.
"It is unimaginable to any parent that your child would go away to school and not return," then-Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice said
at the time, announcing that the mandate of the Truth
and Reconciliation Commission would be expanded to include an investigation of unmarked graves and missing children.
But a separate paper dated September, 2008, suggests that approach was not the government's first instinct. Bob Watts, the commission's former executive director, who no longer works at the commission, wrote that Mr. Prentice was planning to tell the House of Commons, if asked about it during Question Period, that it had no information about the issue of "Missing Children and Unmarked Burials."
"I wrote back the author of the [Question Period]card, and asked whether or not this was true," Mr. Watts wrote. He then describes how a meeting was then hastily called and a decision was made to form a working group to study the matter and provide advice to the commissioners.
Mr. Watts then writes that Mr. Prentice's office was a "model of non-interference" as the working group began its research.
When The Globe requested all documents related to this working group, the government provided a highlyredacted version of a briefing note on the issue.
The Globe has also obtained a draft version of the non-redacted document.
It is a research paper into missing children and asks that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission undertake to discover how many residential students died and who they were, what they died from and where they are buried.
Native elders have for decades provided anecdotal evidence that schoolchildren died and their fellow students were forced to bury them.
The issue of unmarked graves was not specifically explored by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. That report recommended an independent public inquiry be called to examine the effects of residential schools.
The boarding schools were part of an overall federal policy started in the first years of Canada's founding to assimilate aboriginals into the increasingly dominant population of European immigrants.
Partnering with churches that were already established throughout Canada as part of their missionary work, Ottawa built the residential schools and paid churches on a per capita basis to take in native children and teach them a mix of agricultural skills and traditional schooling.
Buried, not forgotten
1. St. John's
Indian Residential School
Also known as Wabasca
opened 1895; new school built in 1949; closed 1966
The IRSC report quotes a 1961 letter from an unidentified school principal who describes a cemetery with unmarked graves that is "a terrible mess." A letter written three weeks later states that the cemetery has been cleaned up and 110 white crosses erected. The school is no longer standing, but the current Anglican minister in Wabasca says the cemetery is well cared for and he had not heard of any historical problems regarding maintenance.
St. Albert, Alta.
opened 1919; closed 1960s
The IRSRC report states that boys at the school were paid to dig graves at the area cemetery. A committee of historians wrote a letter to the Northwest Territories government in 1989 requesting funding for a memorial to recognize the 98 Inuit and Indian people lying in a small cemetery on the grounds of what was the residential school. Advocates for a monument wrote letters to government and church leaders stating that the cemetery grounds had not been cared for since the school closed.
3. Immaculate Conception Boarding School
Standoff (Cardston), Alta.
Also known as Blood Indian Residential School; St. Mary's Mission Boarding School
opened 1911; closed 1975
The IRSC report makes reference to a 1945 letter describing how it is "difficult to get the Indians to do the work suitably" when digging graves in winter at the school. The letter indicates that the Blood Band council was aware of this activity.
Indian Residential School
opened 1896; closed 1981
An Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada (IRSRC) report reviewing Indian Affairs documents describes an incident in 1992, when a construction company uncovered at least 19 graves connected to an unmarked graveyard at the site of the former school. Muskowekwan Indian Residential School is still standing and is on land managed by the Muskowekwan First Nation band council. It is now home to a youth services centre. Compiled by Rick Cash and Bill Curry, using information from the IRSC report as well as the Anglican Church of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations.