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New stats show hundreds died at Northern Ontario residential schools

Of 426 Ontario Indian residential school students known to have died from 1867 to 2000, 38 percent have been forgotten by history.
A residential school student views graves in Fort George, Quebec on November 3, 1946. File photo from Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Of 426 Ontario Indian residential school students known to have died from 1867 to 2000, 38 percent have been forgotten by history.

New data contained in the just-released final report of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission show that neither government nor school officials bothered to record the names of 162 of the deceased Ontario students.

Statistics presented in the 4,224-page report don't differentiate between Northern and Southern Ontario.

But the story of Ontario's forgotten residential school students is largely a Northern Ontario story.

Of 18 residential schools in the province, only two (Muncey and Brantford) were in the South.

The 16 Northern Ontario schools were in:

Sault Ste. Marie
Shingwauk Home - Anglican
Opening: 1873
Closing: 1970
Sault Ste. Marie
Wawanosh Home - Anglican
Opening: 1879
Closing: 1894
Spanish Boys’ School, Charles Garnier, St. Joseph’s - Roman Catholic
Opening: 1913
Closing: 1958
St. John’s - Anglican
Opening: 1907
Closing: 1948
Fort Albany
St. Anne’s - Roman Catholic
Opening: 1902
Closing: 1976
Moose Factory Island
Bishop Horden Hall - Anglican
Opening: 1855
Closing: 1976
Cristal Lake
Northern Light Gospel Mission
Opening: 1976
Closing: 1986
Fort Frances
St. Margaret’s - Roman Catholic
Opening: 1905
Closing: 1974
Fort William
St. Joseph’s - Roman Catholic
Opening: 1870
Closing: 1968
St. Mary’s - Roman Catholic
Opening: 1897
Closing: 1972
Kenora/Shoal Lake
Cecilia Jerey - Presbyterian, United Church
Opening: 1902
Closing: 1976
McIntosh - Roman Catholic
Opening: 1925
Closing: 1969
Poplar Hill
Poplar Hill Development School - Northern Light Gospel Mission
Opening: 1962
Closing: 1989
Sioux Lookout
Pelican Lake - Anglican
Opening: 1926
Closing: 1978
Across Canada, the commission identified 3,200 residential school deaths, in 32 percent of which no names were recorded, 
And Justice Murray Sinclair, the commission's chair, suspects the number of deaths is actually much higher, because of poor record-keeping and destroyed or withheld documents,
"There are signicant limitations in both the quality and quantity of the data the commission has been able to compile on residential school deaths," he writes.
"In many cases, school principals simply reported on the number of children who had died in a school, with few or no supporting details. There are also some reports that give a total of the number of students who had died since a specific school opened, but with no indication of the year in which each student died."
"It is also doubtful that schools reported on the deaths of seriously ill children who had been sent home. This was a common practice for at least the first several decades that the schools were in operation."
Harper Conservatives singled out for criticism
Justice Sinclair placed some blame on the Harper government, both for obstructing access to federal records and for failing to approve additional funding when determining the numbers, names, cause of death and burial places of deceased students was added to the commission's original mandate,
"The federal government’s denial of this request has placed significant limits on the commission’s ability to fully implement the working group’s proposals, despite our sincere belief in their importance," he wrote.
The following are additional conclusions contained in Justice Sinclair's final report released on Tuesday:
  • For just under one-quarter of these deaths (23 percent), the government and the schools did not record the gender of the student who died.
  • For just under one-half of these deaths (49 percent), the government and the schools did not record the cause of death.
  • Aboriginal children in residential schools died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population.
  • For most of the history of the schools, the practice was not to send the bodies of students who died at schools to their home communities.
  • For the most part, the cemeteries that the commission documented are abandoned, disused, and vulnerable to accidental disturbance.
  • The federal government never established an adequate set of standards and regulations to guarantee the health and safety of residential school students.
  • The federal government never adequately enforced the minimal standards and regulations that it did establish.
  • The failure to establish and enforce adequate regulations was largely a function of the government’s determination to keep residential school costs to a minimum.
  • Te failure to establish and enforce adequate standards, coupled with the failure to adequately fund the schools, resulted in unnecessarily high death rates at residential schools.

Among the 3,200 deaths across Canada that the commission was able to identify, the cause of death wasn't known in roughly 50 percent of cases.

Among the remaining cases, tuberculosis was by far the most common cause of death, named as a contributing cause of death 896 times and the sole cause of death in 737 of those instances.

Tuberculosis was reported as cause of death in 48.7 percent of fatalities in which there was a reported cause.

Other significant causes of death were influenza, pneumonia, lung disease, meningitis, heart disease, whooping cough, typhoid fever and hemorrhage.

Misdiagnosis possible

However, "many diagnoses of the cause of death may not have been accurate," Sinclair cautioned..

"Determination of cause of death would often have been made by individuals without medical training. Many of the illnesses that were reported were not well understood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which would further contribute to the possibility of misdiagnosis."

Commission researchers also found six students who died from suicide, 57 drownings, 40 in school fires and 20 from exposure.

Thirty-eight students died in other accidents including vehicle crashes and falls.

"At least thirty-three students died while running away: They would have died from a variety of causes, the
most common being exposure and drowning," Sinclair said.
Death rate 'scandalously high'

"It is important to note that the numbers and percentages of students and former residential school students reported to have died in the schools were scandalously high. None of this discussion is intended to minimize that fact that a health crisis existed in the general Aboriginal population and in residential schools, and that the federal government and the schools failed to adequately address the crisis."

The Truth and Reconcilation Commission's report points to numerous factors contributing to poor health of residential school students, including nutrition, building conditions, health policies, physical and sexual abuse and fire hazards.

"The combination of poor housing, inadequate medical care and poor diet left the students vulnerable to infections and reduced their ability to overcome them. Indian Affairs’ failure to address the tuberculosis crisis in the broader Aboriginal community by improving housing, diets, income, and access to medical treatment, coupled with the failure to screen out infected children prior to admission to residential schools, guaranteed that students would be exposed to infection."

Shingwauk fire trap

Sault Ste. Marie's Shingwauk school was described as a fire trap by government inspectors in 1928.

As for abuse, "the only inquiry that Indian Affairs carried out into complaints against the principal of the Shingwauk school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in 1916 was to contact the principal," the commision report said.

The commission made the following recommendations related to deaths at residential schools:

  • We call upon all chief coroners and provincial vital statistics agencies that have not provided to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada their records on the deaths of Aboriginal children in the care of residential school authorities to make these documents available to the National Centre for Truth
    and Reconciliation.
  • We call upon the federal government to allocate sufficient resources to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to allow it to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
  • We call upon the federal government to work with the churches and Aboriginal community leaders to inform the families of children who died at residential schools of the child’s burial location, and to respond to families’ wishes for appropriate commemoration ceremonies and markers, and reburial in home communities where requested.
  • We call upon the federal government to work with churches, Aboriginal communities, and former residential school students to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children.
  • We call upon the federal government to work with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, churches, Aboriginal communities, former residential school students, and current landowners to develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. This is to include the provision of appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children.
  • We call upon the parties engaged in the work of documenting, maintaining, commemorating, and protecting residential school cemeteries to adopt strategies in accordance with the following principles: 1) The Aboriginal community most affected shall lead the development of such strategies. 2) Information shall be sought from residential school survivors and other knowledge keepers in the development of such strategies. 3) Aboriginal protocols shall be respected before any potentially invasive technical inspection and investigation of a cemetery site.


David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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