Below are extracts from a report from Dr. Scott Hamilton, Dept. of Anthropology, Lakehead University Thunder Bay, Ontario entitled 'Where are the Children buried'? I've included original footnotes within the texts themselves. Emphasis added.
It is clear that communicable diseases were a primary cause of poor health and death for many Aboriginal people during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Some children might have contracted disease at home prior to attending school, but others were likely infected within crowded, often unsanitary, and poorly constructed residential schools. It is also likely that significant numbers of chronically ill children died within a few years after school discharge.
In his 1906 annual report, Dr. Peter Bryce, the chief medical officer for Indian Affairs, outlined the extent of this Aboriginal health crisis, and noted that “the Indian population of Canada has a mortality rate of more than double that of the whole population, and in some provinces more than three times.” Tuberculosis was the prevalent cause of death. He described a cycle of disease in which infants and children were infected at home and sent to residential schools, where they infected other children.
The children infected in the schools were “sent home when too ill to remain at school, or because of being a danger to the other scholars, and have conveyed the disease to houses previously free.” (Canada, Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs, 1906, 274–275.)
Dr. Bryce again raised the issue of tuberculosis in the schools in 1909. In that year, he and Lafferty undertook a detailed examination of all 243 students at seven schools in southern Alberta. Bryce prepared a report of their work, and concluded that there was a “marked” presence of tuberculosis among all age groups. In some schools, “there was not a child that showed a normal temperature.” He noted that, although they were not included in his study, four boys recently discharged from the High River, Alberta, school were in an “advanced state of the illness.” And, “in no single instance in any school where a young child was found awaiting admission, did it not show signs of tuberculosis.”
Bryce also provided a national context for the school’s death rates. Using the statistics for the Shingkwauk Home in Ontario, the Sarcee school in Alberta, and the Cranbrook school in British Columbia for the period from 1892 to 1908, he calculated an annual death rate, from all causes, of 8,000 deaths per 100,000. (He included deaths at school and “soon after leaving” in making this calculation.) By comparison, according to Bryce, the 1901 Canadian census showed a death rate, from all causes, for those between five and fourteen years of age, of an equivalent of 430 per 100,000. (Library and Archives Canada, RG10, volume 3957, file 140754-1, P. H. Bryce to F. Pedley, 5 November 1909.) TRC statistical research reported elsewhere demonstrates that this pattern of much higher death rates compared to children within the general Canadian population persisted as late as 1945. Thereafter, the death rate among Aboriginal children attending residential schools declined to levels more consistent with the general population.
While the appalling death rates within the Residential Schools to the middle of the 20th Century far exceeded that among non-Aboriginal Canadians, it must be considered in the context of health care and medical knowledge in early Canada. Many of the early residential schools were established within the first 50 years of Canadian Confederation, at a time of rapid economic development and large-scale immigration into regions with large Aboriginal populations. The more frequent contact resulted in rapid spread of disease to Indigenous populations with limited resistance to infectious disease.
Provincial and municipal governments were either not yet established or were in their infancy, and public health and cemetery regulations were comparatively undeveloped.
Given the lack of regulation at the time, it appears that most residential school graveyards were established informally, and have left little in the way of formal documentation. This also likely contributed to a suspected under-reporting of mortality in the schools, particularly in late 19th Century. This would have been particularly the case when school staff faced emergency situations during disease outbreaks that resulted in multiple deaths. In such circumstances, they may have been caring for many sick people with insufficient medical assistance, and with little help in preparing and burying those who died. It is also clear that insufficient consideration was made for the continuing care of graveyards upon closure of the Indian Residential Schools. Uncertainty over responsibility for closed schools and cemeteries (i.e. the churches that operated the facilities, or the federal government who financed and administered the system) remains an important issue. That is, what entity should accept responsibility for the documentation, ongoing maintenance, protection, and commemoration of IRS cemeteries?
The magnitude of crisis deriving from an epidemic sweeping through the schools is almost unimaginable from a 21st Century perspective. Several of the schools were overwhelmed by the 1918–19 influenza pandemic. In 1918 all but two of the children and all of the staff contracted influenza at the Fort St. James, British Columbia, school and surrounding community. In the end seventy-eight people, including students, died.
Initially, Father Joseph Allard, who served as the school principal conducted funeral services at the mission cemetery. But, as he wrote in his diary, “The others were brought in two or three at a time, but I could not go to the graveyard with all of them. In fact, several bodies were piled up in an empty cabin because there was no grave ready. A large common grave was dug for them.” (Father Allard’s diary quoted in Cronin, Cross in the Wilderness, 219.) Tragically, the 1918-19 influenza epidemic was only one of many that repeatedly swept through residential schools at various times during their history, likely contributing to the wild fluctuations in annual mortality.
Since the early residential schools operated at a time of high death rates, and were associated with missions located close to reserves, the mission cemeteries likely contain both the bodies of local school children and other community members. Given the rather limited transportation capacity of early Canada, it would have been difficult and expensive to return deceased non-local students to their home communities. Instead, they too were likely buried in the school/mission cemeteries. As discussed below, this is certainly consistent with expectations of the Department of Indian Affairs of the time.
As in so many other aspects of the Canadian residential school system, the federal government appears to have been slow to develop a formal policy governing the burial of students who died at the schools. Instead, the burial of deceased students appears to be rather ad hoc, and varied from school to school. The Department of Indian Affairs seems to have expected the churches to cover funeral costs, and to bury students in mission or residential school cemeteries. The earliest government policy directive identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission dates from 1958, fully 75 years after the rapid expansion of the residential school system. It states that the department was prepared to authorize only minimum funeral expenditures, and would only pay for transporting students to their home reserves if the cost of transportation was less than the cost of burying the student where they died. This is consistent with practice throughout the system’s history; namely to keep burial costs low and oppose sending the bodies of deceased students back to their home community.
Since the schools were virtually all church-run, Christian burial was the norm. Such burials were likely within cemeteries on school grounds, or at a nearby church mission. These cemeteries likely served all members of the denomination, including the missionaries themselves. For example, the cemetery at the Roman Catholic St. Mary’s Mission (near Mission, BC), was intended originally for priests and nuns from the mission as well students from the residential school. Three Oblate bishops were buried there along with settlers, their descendants, and residential students. (Fraser River Heritage Park, The OMI Cemetery, http://www.heritageparkmission.ca/omicemetery.htmlaccessed 4 November 2014.)
When the Battleford school in closed in 1914, Principal E. Matheson reminded Indian Affairs that there was a school cemetery that contained the bodies of seventy to eighty individuals, most of who were former students. He worried that unless the government took steps to care for the cemetery it would be overrun by stray cattle. (Wasylow, “History of Battleford Industrial School for Indians,” 268.) Matheson had good reason for wishing to see the cemetery maintained: several of his family members were also buried there. (TRC, CAR, Anglican Diocese of Saskatoon, List of Burials in Battleford Industrial School Graveyard, no date. [24b-c000001-list_of_burials_in_Battleford_Industrial_School_graveyard_1895-1914.]) These concerns proved prophetic since the location of this cemetery is not recorded in the available documentation, nor does it appear in an internet search of Battleford cemeteries. It may be indicated by a rectangular area with surface modifications located to the southwest of the actual school grounds as this locality is within the land formerly owned by the Residential School, and likely was located immediately west of the historically reported IRS stable.
The rationale guiding standard practice when addressing IRS student deaths is evident in Principal J.F. Woodsworth’s correspondence regarding the aftermath of the 1918 influenza epidemic that struck the Red Deer (Alberta) IRS. Apparently all the students and many of the staff came down with influenza, with five students dying. Four died at the school, while a fifth died while running away. That boy’s body was returned to his home community, the Saddle Lake Reserve, perhaps because of the extraordinary circumstances experienced at the school the boy had fled."Everyone was so sick that it was impossible for us to bury the dead. There was no one here to dig graves in our own school cemetry [sic]. I thought the best thing to do was to have the undertaker from Red Deer take charge of and bury the bodies. This was done, and they now lie buried in Red Deer. The charges for this extra accommodation amount to about $30.00 a child; that is for the four who died here. In view of the emergency and the totally unexpected nature of the case I shall be glad if the Department will bear part of this expense. I believe the total undertaker bill is $130.00. I instructed the undertaker to be as careful as possible in his charges, so he gave them a burial as near as possible to that of a pauper. They are buried two in a grave." (TRC, NRA, Library and Archives Canada, RG10, volume 3921, file 116,818-1B, J.F. Woodsworth to Secretary, Indian Affairs, 25 November 1918. [EDM-000956])
Because of incapacity of school staff to bury the children within the school cemetery, the burial costs in the Red Deer municipal cemetery were judged to be “unavoidable”, and Indian Affairs Deputy Minister Duncan Campbell Scott agreed to reimburse the school for the costs. (TRC, NRA, Library and Archives Canada, RG10, Vol. 3921, File 116, 818-1B, Reel C-10162, Duncan Campbell Scott to J.F. Woodsworth, 5 December 1918. [EDM-000957]) While Scott made no reference to an existing policy, the letter demonstrates that under normal circumstances the schools were expected to cover the burial costs of students who died at school. The most cost-effective way of doing that would be to undertake burial in a cemetery on school grounds. Indian Affairs would only pay for a child’s burial under unusual circumstances, and if it paid, it expected the costs to be kept as low as possible. In this the department conformed to the general practice of the period i n the treatment of those who died in institutions. It was not uncommon for hospitals to have cemeteries into which indigent patients were buried, while workhouses for the poor also had cemeteries. Many Canadians ended up in unmarked paupers’ graves. (For examples of a pauper’s cemetery at a workhouse in Canada, see: Wellington County, House of Industry Cemetery, http://www.wellington.ca/en/discover/cemeteryhoi.asp#Follow%20link%20to%20the%20House%20of%20Industry%20Cemetery%20page, accessed 5 November 2014 and Canada’s Historic Places, York County Municipal Home Cemetery, http://www.lieuxpatrimoniaux.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=13125, accessed 5 November 2014. For an example of a cemetery with a special section for paupers, see: Canada’s Historic Places, Beechwood Cemetery National Historic Site of Canada http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=1210, accessed 5 November 2014. For an example of a hospital with an attached pauper’s cemetery, see: Bourget, “Chapels of Rest and Cemeteries,”)
The Department of Indian Affairs was universally reluctant to send deceased students home for burial. In her memoirs, Eleanor Brass recalled how the body of a boy, who hung himself at the File Hills (Saskatchewan) school in the early twentieth century, was buried on the Peepeekisis Reserve even though his parents lived on the Carlyle Reserve (Brass, I Walk in Two Worlds, 26.). In 1913 two girls, Anna Lahache from Kahnawake and Jennie Robertson from Garden River, drowned while on a picnic expedition at the Spanish, Ontario school. (Library and Archives Canada, RG 10, Volume 6217, file 471-1, part 1, N. Dugas to Dear Sir, 25 August 1913. [Story no 1.1.jpg]) School officials buried Jennie at the school after being unable to reach her mother within four days. (Library and Archives Canada, RG 10, Volume 6217, file 471-1, part 1, N. Dugas to Secretary, Indian Affairs, 2 September 1913. [Story no 1.1.6.jpg]) Anna’s body was not recovered until a week after the drowning. While Anna’s mother requested that her body be returned home for burial, it was decided that it was too badly decomposed and the cost too high. (Library and Archives Canada, RG 10, Volume 6217, file 471-1, part 1, N/ Dugas to J.D. McLean, 28 August 1913. [Story no 1.1.7.jpg]) In 1938 a mother requested that the body of her son, who was dying of tubercular meningitis at the Spanish school, be sent to her in Cornwall, Ontario, for burial upon his death. (Library and Archives Canada, RG 10, Volume 6219, file 471-13, part 2, J. Howitt to the Secretary, Indian Affairs 20 August 1938. [Story no. 2.1.jpg]) The response from Indian Affairs to the school was:"I have to point out that it is not the practice of the Department to send bodies of Indians by rail excepting under very exceptional circumstances. Bodies so shipped have to be properly prepared by the undertakers for transshipments under the laws of the province, and the expense of a long journey such as this would be, would entail an expenditure which the Department does not feel warranted in authorizing." (Library and Archives Canada, RG 10, Volume 6219, file 471-13, part 2, R.A. Hoey to Howitt, 23 August 1938. Story no. [2.2.jpg])
The boy’s body was buried at Spanish. (Shanahan, The Jesuit Residential School at Spanish, 96.)
Not all requests were rejected. Clara Tizya, who grew up in Rampart House near Old Crow in northwestern Yukon, recalled “in the early 1920’s a girl had died at Carcross Indian Residential School and when they sent the body back, there were many rumours about the children receiving bad treatment and this scared the parents or gave them an excuse for not sending their children to school. And so for the next 25 years, no children were sent out to the Carcross Indian Residential School.” (Tyza, “Comment,” 103–104.)
As noted earlier, the earliest currently known Indian Affairs policy document that deals with the burial issue and the cost of shipping bodies dates from 1958. The Social Welfare section of the Indian Affairs field manual for that year provides Indian Affairs staff with direction on the burial of “destitute Indians.” This general policy seems to have been also applied to the death of children while in the care of an Indian Residential School. Burial costs were only to be covered by Indian Affairs when they could not “be met from the estate of the deceased.” There was no fixed rate of payment: instead “The amount payable by the local municipality for the burial of destitute non-Indians is the maximum generally allowed.” Those who died away from their home reserve were to be buried where they died. “Ordinarily the body will be returned to the reserve for burial only when transportation, embalming costs and all other expenses are borne by next of kin. Transportation may be authorized, however, in cases where the cost of burial on the reserve is sufficiently low to make transportation economically advantageous.” (TRC, NRA, DIAND Library Main, JL103 C377, 1958, Indian Affairs Branch Field Manual, “Chapter 13 Social Welfare,” Section 13.14. [120.08514])
The reluctance to pay the cost of sending bodies home continued into the 1960s.
In sum, it is clear that throughout much of the history of the Indian Residential Schools, financially driven procedural barriers (if not formal policy) prevented the return of deceased students to their families for burial. Indeed, the return of deceased children likely only occurred in extraordinary circumstances, and most were buried within school cemeteries, in nearby mission, municipal or reserve cemeteries, or at cemeteries used for burial of destitute hospital patients.
Dr. Hamilton's report is well worth reading in its entirety.
More information here from Isabelle and Ward O'Connor.