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This article was published 18/2/2011 (3165 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
No one knows how many children died in residential schools.
No one knows how many graves were dug for them.
And there is no peace without knowing.
Research at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is underway to get a grip on the approximate number of missing children and unmarked graves at residential schools in Canada, including on the Prairies.
Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the three-member commission, said the tragedy of the missing children is a chapter that casts a deep shadow on the saga of residential schools.
That children died and went missing isn't in dispute.
It's part of the record and the memory, such as the story Joe Harper recounted of how his friend Joseph died in obscurity at the Cross Lake residential school. Fifty years on, it still rankles him.
"There was never a funeral for him," Harper said outside one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tents set up to hear survivor accounts last June at The Forks. "I don't even know how his parents ever found out."
One question likely to remain a mystery is how many Josephs were at the schools.
"We are, quite frankly, not going to be able to say how many children died in the schools or say where they are all buried, and what happened to them after they died," Sinclair said recently at the commission's downtown Winnipeg offices.
Nevertheless, he said it's essential to tackle the issue as part of the residential schools legacy.
To get the work done, the commission has hired Alex Maass, a former Indian Affairs civil servant who is an anthropology expert on gravesites. This month, Greg Younging, a professor of indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia, was appointed assistant director of research. One of his jobs is to oversee the Missing Children Project.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Canada's provincial governments were in place, along with requirements for deaths to be reported as they occurred.
While residential school deaths may have been reported, there are few death certificates attached to student files in old archives. Finding out what happened to each child would involve matching church and government records to Vital Statistics files.
"In order to properly document the children who died in the schools and where they are located, you'd have to go through millions and millions of pages of archival material," Sinclair said.
The commission isn't equipped to complete the herculean task.
Even then, there are too many gaps in the records to clear up every death and every missing child.
The best the commission can do is try to identify the magnitude of the problem, Sinclair said. "And once we have, there will be better information for a decision to be made about what to do about it."
The commission hopes to have enough information to suggest further research and ways to commemorate the graves.
Survivors' accounts are part of the historical record and will be used in the research. Documents to corroborate those accounts are, not surprisingly, hard to find.
"We've heard stories from survivors that babies were born in the schools to mothers who'd been impregnated by teachers and by priests. They say their babies were taken away. They think their babies were killed," Sinclair said. "We don't know the extent to which that occurred, if at all."
Records show there was a practice followed when children died.
"The local principal of the school would make contact with the family and basically say, 'What do you want us to do with your child? He's dead. He drowned when he was running away or he died of disease.' Sometimes there was no effort made to contact the family. They just buried the child."
Depending on the era, there might be a few deaths per year or dozens.
John Milloy, author of National Crime, the most extensive book on Canadian residential schools, has said that reports dating back as far as 1907 show 24 to 42 per cent of children in some schools died of tuberculosis. He said nearly every school he knew of had a cemetery on the grounds.
Records cited in the commission's 2010 study on missing children contained very few references to those cemeteries.
With gaps and discrepancies like that, investigators have their work cut out for them.
"We need to be sensitive to the fact there is a great deal of misinformation and non-information out there," Sinclair said.
Google "residential schools" to get a glimpse of how the fate of missing children decades ago is a super-sensitive and sensational issue today.
Scores of sites pop up, referring to the Canadian Holocaust, in which 50,000 children died or disappeared. The figure is widely reported, but also considered likely a dramatic overstatement.
Many of the sites feature former United Church minister Kevin Arnett from British Columbia, the self-appointed crusader for families who lost children in residential schools. His contribution fuels a debate that's disturbing enough without potentially exaggerated claims.
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice ordered a working group in 2008 to define the scope of the problem in the wake of Arnett's polarizing allegations and their impact on survivors.
The working group found that children had gone missing and graves were not uncommon. The issue was handed on to the commission.
"There are people out there able to take advantage of the mistrust between survivors and the government and maximize their fear and their anger," Sinclair said. "That means there can be no peace until there are some answers."
Two separate but chilling accounts from the same school show the challenges of looking into the painful and complicated question of missing children and unmarked graves at Indian residential schools.
The Roman-Catholic Muscowequan Indian Residential School was built 150 kilometres north of Regina and, in its day, it took in Cree, Saulteaux and Métis students.
The grounds are located in the village of Lestock near the Muskowekwan Ojibway First Nation.
Federal records indicate burials at the former grounds date back to the early 1900s. The school closed in 1981.
School survivor Irene Favel recounted witnessing a newborn's death by fire during her time at Muscowequan from 1941-1949.
In a YouTube broadcast posted this month, Favel, now an elderly woman, describes her hard life as a child in residential school. She recalls the day she saw school staff carry a newborn baby wrapped in pink through the kitchen and into the adjacent furnace room.
Incredibly, she claims the mother was a child of seven.
"They took that baby into the... furnace room and burned it alive. You could smell the flesh cooking," Favel says, her voice soft but clear.
A report from a federal working group to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the issue of missing children and unmarked graves turned up another chilling story.
A graveyard of unmarked graves was accidently excavated by construction crews laying new sewer line in the area 20 years ago.
On July 20, 1992, heavy equipment sliced through three graves near the site of an old student residence on the former grounds.
"Due to the large excavating equipment being used, the remains were not noticed immediately upon disturbance," federal accounts in the report show.
The next day, July 21, 1992, there was more digging. And more graves. This time there was no missing them.
Heavy equipment uncovered 15 graves, all in a row, along the line surveyed for the new sewer. The contractor said it looked like there was a second row of graves just above the first row.
The disturbed remains were wrapped in plastic and locked in a storage shed while the authorities were called.
Three days later, elders representing seven First Nation bands met on the site and work shut down. Eventually, work on the line went ahead and disturbed human remains were ceremonially re-interred.
Records on the school showed a graveyard after a flu epidemic swept the area in the early 1900s and graves moved in 1935 for a new residence.
In 1944, a priest levelled the rest of the cemetery, removing all traces of it, according to an elder interviewed by the working group who had attended the school as a child in the 1940s.
Manitoba had 14 schools. Federal records show cemeteries at two: Brandon and Norway House. The cemetery in Brandon was almost completely obliterated.
If you know of cemeteries at other Manitoba residential schools, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.