Let’s leave residential school tragedies in the past

The dead should be appropriately honoured. But some opportunists will exploit these dead children for financial and political gain

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Brian GiesbrechtThe 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.

Brian is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.

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4 Responses to "Let’s leave residential school tragedies in the past"

  1. Elaine Clay Boudreault   June 11, 2022 at 6:49 pm

    Comments last year made by George Brown, July 8, 2021. Unbelievable that he thought it was misleading and insensitive when in fact this gentleman got it entirely right. It’s about time someone spoke up about the real truth of the hardships small children endured over 100 or so years ago rather than jumping to conclusions. If you really want to learn about our past study the newspapers in your local archives, it will open your eyes. Hmmm!

  2. George D. Brown   July 8, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    This one the most misleading and insensitive comments I have ever read.

  3. Lisette Kennedy   July 7, 2021 at 1:22 pm


    Your piece titled “The Kamloops Cemetery” one hundred percent reflects my views on the subject. Unfortunately, it is not “politically correct” to seek to expose the entire truth of those times in order to arrive at understanding and fairness for all. Those who dare to go down that route are quickly silenced with the label “RACIST”, and there goes freedom of speech as well as innocent till proven guilty.

    What we are constantly hearing is that thousand of children were MURDERED and too many now believe it, no questions asked. Basic human and animal nature since the beginning of times is to care for and nurture our young. It is an abnormal person who abuses a child and it is our duty to intervene. We know that the ideal situation for children is to be brought up by their parents in a loving family. We also know that children fare better being FROM a broken family than living IN one. Were those schools managed with the best of intentions within the norms of the times? If sins there were, are we responsible for “the sins of our fathers” and to what extent?

    AND THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE, not apologies and billions of dollars.
    Aboriginal Canadians living in pain as well as NOW guilt-ridden Canadians need to have a true picture of those times in order to accept, find peace and move on.

    PLEASE, PLEASE, I urge you to repeat your facts and wisdom over and over to reach as many of “the silent majority” as possible lest we lose our values. A very dangerous precedent is being set, thank you PM Trudeau.

  4. Shane Lesley Ericson   June 10, 2021 at 4:44 am

    How uncouth does a person have to be to think that this article is good enough for print? I bet you felt like the pinnacle of the press when you put out this steaming load of garbage?
    It’s people like you that make the media a joke. There used to be integrity in your line of work, but I guess anyone could put their backwards opinions on the internet and be a news outlet.
    The truth of these kids has to come out, and all the ones that will follow now that more sites are going to be searched, and when that happens, I hope that you would apologize for this poor excuse for journalism.
    Shane Lesley Ericson


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