The discovery of human remains at a former residential school site has set off a firestorm that has already resulted in demands for another national inquiry and massively expensive forensic and excavation projects. But maybe we should pause and ask some questions.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School operated as a residential school from 1890 to 1969. Its peak enrolment was around 500 in the 1950s. Although there has understandably been an outpouring of sympathy, it’s not clear how many of the bodies detected were residential students. It’s also not clear that there was even anything sinister about the discovery.
In fact, it’s shocking that many people seem quite willing to accept slanderous conspiracy theories about teachers and priests murdering and secretly burying hundreds of children.
There are many forgotten cemeteries in Canada. It’s far more likely that the deaths simply reflected the sad reality of life then. We should take a look at the history.
Tuberculosis was a major killer, and it didn’t spare children. From 1890 to the 1950s, it was responsible for many child deaths.
Influenza was also a particularly deadly disease for Indigenous people. The 1918 Spanish flu killed a disproportionate number of Indigenous people, but even ordinary influenza was particularly deadly for them.
Other diseases that have all but disappeared, like whooping cough, meningitis and measles, routinely took yesterday’s children.
Disease took many from every demographic but Indigenous people suffered most. They died mainly in their home communities, where the Grim Reaper was always close by. Infected children entered residential schools and infected others. Many died.
In our comfortable times we forget how hard life was 100 and more years ago – Dickens’ world of chimney sweeps and the poor house.
Stories are being written about Canada’s “Home Children,” for example. These were mainly English orphans and children from poor homes taken from their parents and sent by themselves to Canada. Little children – some as young as seven – would arrive with cardboard signs around their necks advertising their free labour.
Boys would be taken by farmers and used as labour in return for their keep. Girls would be used as domestic workers. Some received good treatment; some were treated very badly. Many died alone and forgotten. It’s a coincidence that the number of Home Children roughly equalled the total number of children who attended residential schools – 150,000.
The Home Children are just one example of the sadness that was part of the lives of all poor children who had the misfortune to be born in those times. Indigenous children suffered more than most. This historical snippet in no way mitigates the importance of the Kamloops discovery. But we should consider the harshness of previous times before letting emotion overtake good sense.
The dead should be appropriately honoured, but we should be mindful that some opportunists will exploit these dead children for financial and political gain. The residential school story has now been exhaustively told. Canadians have heard it – and we get it. We have sympathized, and billions of dollars have been paid by people, most of whom weren’t alive then, to people who mostly weren’t either.
It’s time to move on.
Brian Giesbrecht, a retired judge, is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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