A shame too great

In 1883, Sir John Macdonald (1815-1891), Canada’s first prime minister, addressed the House of Commons outlining his plan for a residential school system that would educate Indigenous children. Macdonald stated that when these children are schooled on reservations “the child lives with his parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian.” For the prime minister, it was imperative that Indigenous children “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

From 1883 until the last federally funded residential school closed in the 1990s, approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were “educated” at more than 130 institutions across Canada. Most residential schools were church affiliated, about 70% Roman Catholic and the remainder Protestant denominations. Many if not most Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and forbidden to speak their native language and practice cultural traditions. Some were stripped of their Indigenous names.

In May of this year the remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves at a former school in British Columbia run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic organization. In June the remains of 751 people — mainly Indigenous children — were discovered at a former Marieval Indian Residential School — founded by Catholic missionaries in the 1890s — in Saskatchewan. Recently the human remains of 182 people buried in unmarked graves were found near the grounds of St. Eugene’s Mission School (Roman Catholic) in British Columbia In 2008, more than a decade prior to these gruesome discoveries, the Canadian government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to determine what transpired at residential schools. A 2015 report stated the forced reeducation of Indigenous children was “cultural genocide” — the destruction of structures and practices that allows a group to maintain its identity.

The commission identified more that 3,200 children who died at these schools, the figure now over 4,000 with the addition of recent discoveries. Murray Sinclair, former chairperson of the TRC, stated the actual number is likely “well beyond 10,000.”

Because of poor record keeping and some residential schools failing to release documents, the actual number of children who died at residential schools will never be known. School and government records sometimes omitted the name, sex or cause of death, as if the deceased child was no more important than a dead dog or cat.

Many Indigenous children succumbed to diseases, including tuberculosis, which spread rapidly in unsanitary, crowded schools. As a consequence of diets described as low in quality and quantity, these maladies were especially lethal. In its 4,000 page 2015 report the TRC stated that “Government, church and school officials were well aware of these failures and their impact on student health…If the question is ‘who knew what and when?’ the clear answer is: ‘Everyone at this point in the system’s history.'”

An unknown number of children died in accidents and fires. Some froze to death or drowned attempting to flee the schools. Other committed suicide. In his typology of self-destruction, sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) stated that “fatalistic suicide” is committed by individuals whose lives are so closely regulated they sink into hopelessness and despair of ever escaping their oppressive environment. No doubt the physical, sexual and emotional abuse inflicted on Indigenous children contributed to suicides.

Murray Sinclair heard testimony from residential school survivors that infants born to young girls impregnated by priests and monks were deliberately killed — some infant bodies incinerated.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde stated the TRC’s findings were not surprising. Survivors of the residential school system “have been saying this for years — but nobody believed them.”

How did the treatment of Indigenous children that resulted in so much misery, suffering and death come about? At least four factors must be considered: 1. Every society has “moral entrepreneurs,” those individuals and organizations instrumental in shaping the perception of what is good, true and beautiful. In so doing they also create the obverse, what is bad, untrue and ugly. Historically in Canada — as in the United States — the good, true and beautiful is White, European and Christian. Because of their skin color, religion, language and culture, Indigenous people were the ultimate, inferior “outsiders” and had to be re-socialized to conform to the prevailing standards of White, Christian Canada.

2. In his 1883 address to the House of Commons, Prime Minster Macdonald referred to indigenous people as “savages.” The dehumanizing savage label made two things possible. First, Indigenous children could be routinely brutalized as one would punish and control a savage dog, and second, this brutality was rationalized as necessary for the good of the recipient, that is, destruction of Indigenous identity and culture. As sociologist Howard Becker noted, reforming crusaders are “fervent and righteous,” anything done to right a wrong is justified. One could brutalize the children of savages and sleep well knowing he or she was doing God’s work.

3. Moral entrepreneurs must be in a position of power to impose their will over those to be controlled-changed even when the latter resist. In Canada, moral entrepreneurs had the authority of the church and state as well as the power of the state. When residential school attendance for Indigenous children became mandatory in the 1920s, parents who resisted this policy were threatened with imprisonment.

4. The task of moral entrepreneurs is facilitated when they encounter little if any resistance from the public. Canadians aware of the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families either accepted this policy, did not disagree with it to the extent they collectively and publicly opposed this program, or simply didn’t care one way or the other.

Speaking of the unmarked graves, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, “They are shameful reminders of the systematic racism, discrimination and injustice that Indigenous people have faced – and continue to face — in this country.”

While Pope Francis expressed sorrow for the Catholic Church’s role in the forced reeducation of Canada’s Indigenous children, he never explicitly apologized.

The end.

P.S. While John Macdonald authorized the creation of Canada’s residential school system, the worst of what happened to Indigenous children occurred in the decades after his death.

(George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale.)


Alhmidi, A. (2012) “Discovery of Indigenous Children’s Bodies Reminder of Canada’s Genocide, Experts Say,’ June 2, Toronto Globe and Mail, www.globeandmail.com

Austen, I. and D. Bilefsky (2021) “Hundreds of Unmarked Graves Found at Former Residential School in Canada,” June 24, New York Times, www.nytimes.com

Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, The Free Press: New York

Coletta, A. (2021): What to Know About Canada’s Residential Schools and the Unmarked Graves found Nearby,” June 25, Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com

Frum, D. (20201) “The Fight Over Canada’s Founding Prime Minister,” June 21, The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com

Honderich, H. (2021) “Why Canada Is Mourning the Deaths of 215 Children” (2021) June 25, British Broadcasting Corporation, www.bbc.com

Hopper, J. (2021) “Why So Many Children Died at Indian Residential Schools.” May 31, National Post. www.nationalpost.com

Miller, M. and A. Coletta (2021) “Celebrations of Canada’s National Day Muted Amid Furor Over Unmarked Graves.” June 21, The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com

Moran, R. (2020) “Truth and Reconciliation,” October 5, The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca

Newton, P. and M. Chavez (2021) “More Than 700 Unmarked Graves Found at Former Residential Schools in Canada, Officials Say,” June 25, CNN, www.cnn.com

“Residential Schools” (accessed 2021) The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca

Schwartz, M. (2021) “Pope Francis Expresses Sorrow But No Apology for Indigenous School Deaths in Canada,” June 6, National Public Radio, www.npr.org

Worden, A. (2021) “New Efforts Seek to ‘Uncover the Truth’ About Schools Where Many Indigenous Children Died,” June 27, The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today