MP Charlie Angus: The government knew. The churches knew. Now Canada fully knows.
ABOVE: Chief medical officer Peter Bryce submitted a 1907 report to the Canadian government that highlighted the mistreatment of Indigenous students in the residential school system and advocated for changes to improve conditions at the schools. (PHOTO: Lancefields of Ottawa, 1890)
Charlie Angus is one of the hardest working, caring, thoughtful and intelligent MPs in Parliament. As the federal New Democratic Member of Parliament for the riding of Timmins—James Bay since 2004, he has been an advocate for Indigenous communities for decades—and in his northern Ontario riding for years. He has has called out the former Conservative government and the Trudeau government on numerous occasions for their continuing failures on multiple Indigenous files, especially those involving children.
Please read what Charlie is saying about the hard truth of the residential school system.
A reflection on finding the bodies of the children:
Hundreds of more bodies of young Indigenous children have been found at a former residential school in Saskatchewan. It is horrifying news but this is just the beginning. In 1907, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce reported on the shocking death rates of children in the residential schools. In western Canada it was considered normal for one out of every four children to die. He noted that the Files Hill residential school (the only school to actually provide accurate totals to the department) had a death rate that was a staggering 69 per cent of children. Bryce did incredible work to hold the government to account for these death houses. They fired him.
As these little children are exhumed it is likely that we will find that the vast majority died from tuberculosis. But it would be false to think that this was just the reality of the times or because people didn’t know better. These children died from government policy.
In the early 1890s as the residential schools were being formalized the federal government set out to establish what it would cost to actually feed and keep an Indian child alive in a church run boarding school. They then set the rate paid to the churches at a much lower level. The Order in Council stated that this planned underfunding was a “forced system of economy” to “relieve the pressure of present expenditure.” What they meant was that they were going to let Indigenous children go hungry and die.
The churches for their part, then took their cut. It was known as “bleeding the children to feed the Mother House.” Funds that should have gone to food, accommodation and teachers were skimmed off as a profit for the churches. The result was that the institutions set up substandard accommodations cramming children into overcrowded dormitories. They failed to provide basic ventilation and in some place didn’t even bother to provide soap or clean water for the children.
These institutions knew that TB was rampant and their measures would result in mass deaths. Before he was a fired Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce wrote a damning internal document warning the federal government about the growing death rates in children. When Saturday Night magazine got their hands on the Bryce Report they wrote it should “startle the country… Indian boys and girls are dying like flies in these institutions… a situation disgraceful to the country.”
The government knew. The churches knew. Now Canada fully knows.
So what do we need to do? I encourage everyone to take the time read the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.You will find that the first set of the calls of action are about dealing with the inequities facing Indigenous children in today's broken child welfare system. The policy that caused the mass graves is the same policy in place today. This policy is the deliberate underfunding of Indigenous children services in comparison to what non-Indigenous children receive. The Human Rights Tribunal has ruled this policy is “willful and reckless” on the part of the Trudeau government in their deliberate underfunding of Indigenous children. We need to end the systemic denial of rights.
We need to admit the genocide that our nation tried to inflict through the taking of innocent children. We need to work with the Indigenous people across the country who are looking to get their loved ones brought home. The churches and government must own up and turn over the names of all the perpetrators and all the documents on these institutions of evil.
These are hard truths to confront but they are necessary truths.