What happened to the children?--A collaborative project
Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is overseeing something called the Missing Children Project--a bold attempt to track and record the fate of every indigenous child who passed through the notorious residential school system. It's a kind of census of calamity. What follows is the framework of one story. I'd like to collect many more. If you have personal knowledge of a child who died while attending a residential school, and whose true story has never been fully told, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post a comment to this blog. In so doing, you will be adding to the documentation of a sad chapter in Canada's history.
Jack Lacerte was barely three years old when it happened, but he has a vivid recollection of the day back in 1937 when the two priests knocked on the door of his home in Fraser Lake, B.C. The black-robed clerics wanted to speak to Jack’s dad Philippe, a caretaker at the local residential school.
Two days earlier, on New Year’s Day, four young homesick boys had left the Lajac School without permission. The youngest was seven years old. The eldest, nine. It was dark, and 20-below zero, but they missed their parents so they sneaked out of the school and started walking home, across the lake. By midnight, police later said, all four had frozen to death within a kilometer or two of their destination. But their bodies would lay in the snow for more than 16 hours before police and local townspeople even mounted a search party. (See photo above.) Their names were Andrew Paul (8), John Michel Jack (7), Justa Maurice (8), and Alan Willie (9). A fifth boy, Paul Alex (10) left the school with them that night, but returned on his own.
“Indian Affairs is sending investigators to look into this tragedy,” the priests told Phillip Lacerte, standing in the doorway. “They’ll be asking questions. You knew the boys. We want to make sure you have the story right. We’re here to tell you what we want you to say.”
Jack says his father objected. He told the priests he was raised in a Catholic school in Quebec, that he couldn’t tell a lie. The priests said he had 24 hours to consider his refusal to co-operate. But Philippe was adamant. He couldn’t take part in a cover-up. He realized that what he had to say about the treatment of the children at Lejac would reflect badly on his black-robed superiors. So he took a stand on principle, but it carried a bitter price: That same day, Philippe Lacerte the school terminated his job, and he and his family were thrown out of their home on school property. All records of his employment at the school were erased. Jack Lacerte says his father sank into depression, and became an alcoholic. He died in a work accident in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, the full story of the Indian boys—why they ran away, why it took nearly a day before anybody started to look for them—has never been told: One more grim, shameful and incomplete chapter in the history of Canada’s residential schools.
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Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a profoundly difficult mandate: to bring some kind of emotional closure to the survivors the 130 Indian residential schools. There are approximately 80,000 of these survivors, many of them past the age of 60, and almost all of them carry the psychic (and sometimes physical) scars of their experience. They have received compensation, and counseling, and an apology from the government and the churches.
But the TRC’s most challenging task may involve not the living, but rather the dead. Its Missing Children Project, headed by Ontario historian John Milloy, is seeking to create a comprehensive record of every child who never returned home. What are the numbers, 5000? Or, as some suggest, as many as 50,000? Did they die from TB or malnutrition? Where are the medical records? Did they die while fleeing abuse at the hands of their teachers? Where are they buried? Or if they survived, did they return to their homes, or were they passed on to foster parents?
Why should we concern ourselves with things that happened 70 or 80 years ago? What relevance do events like the Lejac incident have today? Milloy sees his project as a fundamental historical settling-of-accounts. For Canada’s aboriginal peoples, though, it’s much more than statistics. Says native activist Maggie Hodgson: “It is so important to know how we came to this place of collective grief. If we have these figures, then our people can begin to talk about their own holocaust.”
The challenges of the Missing Children’s Project are many: the problem of lost (or destroyed) records, the failing memory of the survivors, the missing graveyards and the unmarked graves, the agonies of the families, like the Lacertes, who were indirect victims of the schools policy. Was this a genocide, as some suggest, or a monumental act of carelessness, as Milloy characterizes it?
Who am I?
A year ago I did a long investigation for Reader’s Digest magazine on the inadequacies of the compensation package that the Canadian government gave to the survivors of the residential schools. I got to know the players, and in my interviews with them, one question kept coming up: What happened to those many thousands of children who didn’t come home? I promised myself that I would try to answer this question, and I got to know people like John Milloy, and Maggie Hodgson. And people like Kevin Annett, a defrocked Anglican minister who claims the schools were part of was a deadly conspiracy. That’s an extreme view, which I don’t subscribe to, but many of Annett’s questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered.
Why should you care?
The residential schools are one of the darkest parts of 20th century Canadian history, and what they produced are at the heart of the country’s aboriginal problem. We’ll never understand the alienation of a million aboriginal Canadians, until we understand that impulses that created and maintained these schools, and what they did to several generations of children, whose deaths live in us all.