Vancouver Island’s residential schools saw death rates of up to 40 percent among incarcerated children.
A SPONTANEOUS DEMONSTRATION OF PUBLIC GRIEF over the finding of 215 unmarked graves for children on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops created a display of children’s shoes, candles and stuffed animals on the front steps of British Columbia’s legislature. Security staff stealthily removed them overnight. People replaced the display in the following days.
June 13, 2021 at the BC Legislature
The legislature is supposed to be the people’s house. In fact it is the seat of enduring colonial power in a province that has the sorriest record in Canada for acknowledging a prior indigenous presence.
The legislature apologized for—at best—another example of blundering, tone-deaf governance by a system that put thousands of such children into unmarked graves across Canada, hundreds of them right here on Vancouver Island. It was one more apology in a long list of apologies that seem increasingly empty the longer it becomes.
On Vancouver Island at least 202 children died in residential schools. They died at Kuper Island (now Penelakut), at Alberni, at Tofino, at Ahousat and at Alert Bay. Others may have died as a consequence but remain unidentified—dying in hospitals, infirmaries or sanitariums outside the schools or sent to small, remote communities to die at home.
Data from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation indicates that at the Kuper Island school alone, of the 264 First Nations children forcibly enrolled between 1890 and 1896, 107 were listed as having died.
What had 12-year-old Edith Kruger experienced when she was moved to create this image of graves at a school in BC
If this sounds like a death camp mortality rate—and it most certainly does to me—it is also a conservative estimate. Nobody knows exactly how many children died in residential schools or where the nameless ones, the forgotten ones, are buried. Redbreast, for example. Or Ackeepineskung. Nobody knows which schools they attended—or when they died or where they are buried, only that they were apprehended, taken away to be educated and vanished, never to be seen again.
Some children are recorded only by a first name, like Arthur at Ahousat who died in 1913, exact day not known. Or Mona who died at Alert Bay. Some are known only to have died, with circumstances and date not recorded. Many never even had their deaths officially registered with the province, and searches for them in the archives draw only a blank. It’s as though, like students who vanished under Argentina’s ruthless junta, they never existed beyond that one name on an almost-forgotten list.
Almost, but not quite. This is where almost ends, here and now.
We conveniently tell ourselves that the “disappeared” students in Argentina or Chile were victims of brutal dictatorships that killed them for political reasons. Yet Canada’s residential schools were political, part of the grand government scheme for clearing the land for immigrant settlers. The federal government was encouraging a flood of settlers into the West to help it assert occupational sovereignty in reaction to American expansion westward.
Consider: 107 of 264 children at a Vancouver Island residential school died in the school’s first six years under circumstances that include malnutrition, disease and harsh punishments. That’s comparable to the mortality rate in the notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps that resulted in highly publicized war crimes trials for the prison administrators.
The residential school at Kuper Island
Is it fair to compare a prison camp to a school? Well, if you are put in a place against your will, fed substandard food, not allowed to leave and subjected to corporal punishment if you try, it sounds a lot like the definition of a prison camp.
The death rate for prisoners of war in the Japanese camps that so horrified their liberators exceeded 30 percent. At Kuper Island, judging from the statistics cited for 1896, the death rate for children incarcerated for re-education then exceeded 40 percent.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that in 1896, says the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation entry for Kuper Island, the students tried to burn it down. Or that more than half a century later two girls would drown trying to flee the place.
Education weaponized for ethnic cleansing
The architect of these humanitarian atrocities was Sir John A. Macdonald.
Alberta’s pugnacious premier Jason Kenney was recently asked in an interview whether, given what we now know, Macdonald’s was the appropriate name to hang on a Calgary high school. Kenney seized the opportunity to pander to his political base by lamenting “cancel culture” and characterizing residential schools as an unfortunate “imperfection” blemishing the otherwise sterling reputation of a great leader who deserved celebration for his other accomplishments, foremost among them the very Confederation that some vocal Albertans on the farther right apparently wish to demolish.
Let’s be clear. The brutal residential school system put in place by the Macdonald government was more than a mere imperfection, some unfortunate flaw in policy. The residential school system was a tool for the methodical abuse of human rights. Residential schools were education weaponized for moral brainwashing, ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide.
Those are strong words. But they aren’t my words. They are the words of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, used to describe what the country’s highest jurist called the worst stain on Canada’s human rights record.
And that’s a record already deeply stained by race riots, the internment of minorities, enforced sterilization of people with disabilities, misogynistic massacres of young women, and religious and racial hate crimes.
“The objective—I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather—was to ‘take the Indian out of the child and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem,’” said Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin in a speech in Vancouver in 2013.
“‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.”
Prairie historian James Daschuk, who said his discoveries made him rethink everything he thought he knew about Canada’s creation narrative, wrote this in a Globe and Mail article in 2013:
“A key aspect of preparing the land was the subjugation and forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of aboriginal people…Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the then-Alberta border.
With buffalo gone, starvation was employed as a tool for forcing indigenous populations onto small reserves. Government officials, Daschuk says, withheld food while it rotted in storage “while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness.”
In the winter of 1883, Roman Catholic missionary Father Louis Cochin reported “gaunt children dying of hunger.”
Even Conservative politicians were appalled at what they saw. Thomas Jackson, the MP for the Northwest Territories, saw starving, freezing Cree supplicants for food turned away by government agents.
“In the case of one Indian,” he said, “within two months seven of his children died because they had not the necessaries of life.”
Macdonald had described this policy to the House of Commons in laudatory terms. Refusing food until First Nations populations were actually starving was keeping costs down and weakening resistance to the colonization of the Great Plains.
Residential schools were the second phase of this project to politically remake the West.
The entire raison d’être of residential schools, cloaked in an Orwellian high-mindedness regarding their moral purpose was, put in plainer language, to erase indigenous culture—to deconstruct its economy, disrupt its social cohesion, extinguish its connection to the land, and abolish its language, its history, its literature, its religious beliefs, its traditions, ceremonies and, indeed, its entire sense of identity.
Residential schools, Macdonald said, enabled the separation of children from their culture so that subsequent generations could be more readily remade as something else.
“It has been strongly impressed upon myself…that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men,” Macdonald said in 1879.
The object was to make an entire people disappear not by killing their bodies but by killing everything about them that made them distinguishable from the dominant society. The schools were only marginally about education. Really they were a vast exercise in cultural gaslighting intended to brainwash children into a sense of profound shame over who they were and whence they came.
Duncan Campbell Scott, esteemed as a Canadian literary icon, ran the Department of Indian Affairs. He acknowledged that the schools, where children were packed into dormitories under unsanitary conditions, were pestilential. Food was strictly rationed; one former student at Ahousat told a Vancouver Sun reporter in 1995 that 57 years earlier one of his school chums had died following a beating for stealing a prune from the kitchen.
Ahousaht, BC, students in the school cafeteria. British Columbia Archives, PN-15589
“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in these schools, and that they die at much higher rate than in their villages,” Scott said. “But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian problem.”
Canadians have chosen to look away—or seek scapegoats
“Cultural genocide.” “Final solution.” “Disappeared.” “Died while trying to escape.” “Beaten to death for stealing a prune.” This is the context that frames residential schools and the unmarked graves of child inmates.
So when the officials who represent the authority of the BC government—the keepers of its sacred precinct—carelessly removed that poignant public display from the legislature steps, they were symbolically delivering the same message that residential schools themselves sought to accomplish regarding indigenous narratives: erase them from public space.
And really, why was anybody surprised? Like a generation of post-war Germans who professed not to have known about the Holocaust, Canadians have chosen not to look upon this dolorous narrative of national crime. Once again, that’s not my descriptor; it was the term used by Peter Bryce, the federal government’s own inspector who was utterly appalled by what he found, for example, one school where 69 percent of the pupils and former pupils had died.
When his formal report met indifference from authorities, he took it to the press where it was a one-day wonder—front page of the Ottawa Citizen for one day, then off the radar—and then in 1922 wrote a book, The Story of a National Crime. It, too, was largely ignored by the broader public.
Today, there appears to be a national awakening to this awful past of brutality, indifference and cruelty. But even now there’s a search for scapegoats. Blame past leaders. Pull down their statues. Blame former governments. Blame cancel culture. Blame the churches that ran the schools. Yet the truth is, there is no “them” to blame. There’s only “us.” Government was us. The authorities were us. The administrators were us. The churches were us. They did what they did to the victims for us. The big objective was to help us cover up, to evade responsibility and ultimately to help us absolve ourselves of the human rights crime upon which we have constructed our entire national edifice.
Many of us are still in denial about this sin. But many more, it seems, led by young people, are now prepared for the painful conversation that comes with acknowledgment of what was done and who did it and on whose behalf.
Personally I don’t care about pulling down statues of Sir John A. Macdonald or renaming Ryerson and McGill universities, high schools and streets. All that may be satisfying. But to me, the important thing is not the past, it’s the future. It’s what we do next to reconcile with those we have wronged and in many cases continue to wrong.
When we think about Macdonald’s starvation policies, we should think about the 53 percent of First Nations children more than a century later who live below the poverty line in a country that became one of the wealthiest in the world by exploiting their former homelands. We should think about the 22 percent of indigenous families in 2021 who experience moderate to severe food insecurity.
When we think about the fate of First Nations children in residential schools that were lethal dormitories of disease and illness, we should consider that today in Manitoba, although indigenous people are 10 percent of the population, they suffer 70 percent of COVID-19 infections. And First Nations families are 10 times more likely to be living in overcrowded housing, many with inadequate access to safe drinking water—of the 60 communities with water advisories in place, 47 percent have been in that state for more than a decade. The government still has no comprehensive regulatory regime for managing drinking water on the reserves it set up.
The residential school at Alert Bay, circa 1970
When we think about the sad stories of two little girls drowning as they attempted to flee one residential school in mid-winter, or four little boys freezing in the snow after they sought to flee another in their shirts at minus-38 degrees, or the teenager reportedly beaten to death for stealing a prune for his six-year-old dormitory mate, we should think about the fact that anxiety remained the most prevalent mental health issue for aboriginal youth in 2016. The suicide rate for indigenous youth is three times that of the mainstream population; in some regions it’s 33 times the Canadian average and is the leading cause of death for children and adolescents.
We owe it to Maisie—and 150,000 other children
I planned to start this piece by saying that the events on the legislature steps brought to my mind the memory of Maisie Shaw. But to be honest, that wouldn’t be true, because since she came to my awareness more than a quarter of a century ago there’s seldom been a day when I haven’t thought of her.
I never met Maisie Shaw. She departed this world almost 75 years ago just as I was coming into it. She’s a mystery, a revenant, an unknown. She’s been held up as a symbol of oppression, an icon of the brutality of residential schools for those determined to address the past, a metaphor for our collective failure to address the truth about ourselves.
For me she’s an echo of the trauma from those days that will destroy this country if we don’t resolve it. Most important, she’s not a statistic, she’s not a number or a registration entry or a line on a list of names.
She was once a person, embedded in a family like yours and mine.
Maisie Shaw was a student at Alberni Residential School in 1946. She came from the tiny village of Nitinat on the remote West Coast. Her father was Walter Shaw, a fisherman, and her mother was Ella Williams. Maisie was born on August 26, 1932. In one of those odd occurrences of history, she shared her birthday with her father, who had been born August 26, 1905 in New Westminster. Her mother was born in Alberni in 1906.
One of her brothers was born at Whyac where the Nitinat River reaches the sea, another was born at Clo-ose, a little farther down the coast. One brother died when he was one, the year before Maisie was born. Her mother died when she was five. And then she went to the Alberni school.
What happened to her there is the mystery. Another former student, Harriet Nahanee, who died in 2007, said in 1995 that on December 24, 1946, when she was six, she had witnessed Maisie Shaw being kicked down a flight of stairs at the residential school and lying motionless on the floor with her eyes open and that she later died of her injuries; her body was sent back to Nitinat.
The official documents tell another story: Maisie was admitted to West Coast General Hospital in Alberni on December 18 with an acute case of rheumatic fever; she died there on December 26 of a severe inflammation of the pericardium, the membrane that surrounds the heart, which is commonly associated with the illness. She was buried, a document said, in the Tseshaht band cemetery in Alberni. I went to look for her grave, but the undertaker listed on the death certificate had no records, and I was unable to find her burial site.
When I called West Coast General to determine whether Maisie Shaw had been admitted on the date given on the death certificate, I was told records from that time had long been destroyed and the hospital itself had been relocated twice since then.
Everybody associated with Maisie is now dead: Harriet, the school principal, the Indian Agent who signed the death certificate, the doctor who said she was his patient for a week, her parents, her brothers. All dead.
Did Harriet Nahanee conflate events and people? There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Alberni school, like others on the Island, was a violent place. Students there were disciplined by corporal punishment. Some were repeatedly and brutally sexually assaulted by the school’s dormitory advisor over a 20-year period from 1948 to 1968; he was later jailed for 11 years and has since died. And memory is at best a malleable thing, particularly for traumatized children.
Were official documents destroyed, falsified or altered? Also possible.
Perhaps, though, seeking the details of Maisie Shaw’s fate reflects only an old reporter’s urge for precision, a way of trying to refute public amnesia. Ultimately the facts are less important than collectively remembering the historic truth of what was done to her and to 150,000 other innocents over a century of cruelty.
On this coast First Nations were pushed out of their traditional fisheries and their lands were appropriated. Among the first acts of British Columbia on entry into Confederation was taking away their right to vote. First Nations were denied the right to own property; denied the right to practice traditional ceremonies and religious rites, denied the right to organize politically to address their land rights; and denied the right to hire lawyers. Finally, in the most intimate insult, their children were taken from them and sent to be brainwashed in prison schools where they were publicly whipped, forcibly confined, abused, raped and buried in unmarked graves.
The message of the residential schools was simple: We can do anything we want and you are powerless to stop us.
All these things are a matter of record. We haven’t had a national conversation about them because we haven’t wanted to face the truth about ourselves as a country founded on a national crime.
The memory of Maisie Shaw and all the other lost children demand that conversation. It’s a conversation we cannot, must not, turn away from, however painful it becomes.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and Vancouver Island.