Former United Church minister makes abuse claims
Published Friday, March 28, 2008 3:00PM EDT
Decades after the doors closed for good on Canada's last residential school, explosive allegations about mass graves continue to surface.
But police and the former United Church minister who has made some of the allegations admit they haven't found anything to back up the claims. "The evidence was coming out anecdotally from people's stories," Kevin Annett, the former minister who has criss-crossed the country with his own "truth commission" on residential schools, said in an interview this week.
Historians and researchers say there are well-documented records of many children dying from tuberculosis in the schools.
But as for murder and mass graves, they say there's been no evidence found, though thousands of pages of documents have yet to be combed through. Even then, records from the schools are spotty.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church notes the churches have long admitted many horrible things happened at the schools, but Paul Schratz said some of the claims are over the top.
"There's no substance to them and for some reason they're coming up again," Schratz said.
He said church officials have encouraged Annett to go to the authorities with the allegations.
"We and other churches have said that if he has any evidence we encourage him to bring it to the police," Schratz said.
Annett led about two dozen protesters to Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver on Easter Sunday to serve the church with an eviction notice.
His group, Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared, did the same thing a week earlier and they've made similar demands in Toronto.
Annett said the protests are to draw attention to the plight of children who were forced into both Catholic and Protestant residential schools.
At the Easter Sunday protest, Annett said it was time the "Catholic Church pulled their head out of the sand and responded to the victims and the things people are asking for . . . a return of the children who died, their remains, and an identification of who's responsible."
Annett said he has been told by native people of "several" mass graves, including ones near former residential schools in Mission, Port Alberni and Alert Bay.
He claims the children who are buried in the mass graves died from TB, maltreatment and beatings.
But he is unable to say whether the allegations were taken to police.
"I don't believe generally that these allegations of mass graves were taken to police because the kids were so terrorized," Annett said.
"I think that's why we are limited right now to a lot of anecdotal stuff and we need to see the documents and the final step is forensic proof."
No mass graves have been found.
During the weekend protest outside the cathedral, another member of the group, Rick Lavallee, told reporters that his younger brother had been killed while a student at a Catholic-run residential school in Portage La Prairie, Man.
Lavallee said his five-year-old brother was beaten with a cattle prod by a lay employee of the school.
But in a subsequent interview this week, Lavallee said his brother was three, not five, when he died, and he can't remember the year of his death.
He said he was told the story by his grandfather.
Rosalind Merrick, a residential school survivor and current board member of the Indian Residential School Museum of Canada in Portage La Prairie, said the school was started not by the Catholic Church but by a group of concerned women who operated it initially under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church.
It was operated later by the United Church, she said.
She has documentation of all deaths at the school, including one child who died in a hit-and-run accident and another who died in a farming accident.
She does not recall the Lavallees.
RCMP spokesman Staff Sgt. John Ward said there have been investigations.
"We have done extensive investigations over the years into the allegations of mass graves and to this day we've never been able to substantiate any of that," said Ward.
In the late 1990s, the RCMP in B.C. began investigations into allegations of abuse made by former residential students.
Ward said that as many as 15 people were charged in the investigation and some are still in the court system.
There is solid evidence, however, to back a claim by Annett that a huge number of native children died of TB during the residential school years - a claim supported by John Milloy, a professor of Canadian Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.
Milloy has written a book on the residential school experience and was a senior researcher for the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Milloy's book recounted the experience of Peter Bryce, the Indian Affairs chief medical officer in the early 1900s.
Bryce found that between 24 per cent and 42 per cent of the students died from TB over a 14-year period.
Bryce and others claimed it was a deliberate practice to keep the sick and healthy together, said Milloy.
But records of deaths from TB and other causes from the middle of the 20th century on are not as clear about death rates, said Milloy.
A senior Indian Affairs Department official of the day, Duncan Campbell Scott, wrote in 1914 that as many as 50 per cent of the children who attended residential schools could have died from TB or other diseases.
But the precise number of deaths from TB?
"Nobody knows," said Milloy, who quickly discounts Annett's claim that 50,000 children died.
There are records of deaths in schools but "nobody has gone through the 750 metres of paper that include the churches, the department and any other federal agency as well as all provincial files," said Milloy.
"There are all kinds of footprints of dead and dying children in the provincial files . . . but nobody has gone through the 750 metres of government and church files, nobody has gone through them and counted.
"Nobody even knows how many kids went to school."
How many died of foul play?
"God only knows," said Milloy. "I know enough to know there are no records of 50,000 children dead in the school files."
Annett said he arrived at the 50,000 figure by estimating five deaths per year at the more than 100 residential schools over 100 years.
"I don't think that's unrealistic," said Annett.
Schratz, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, said the Catholic Church and the other churches have admitted that "some terrible things happened at residential schools."
"In hindsight now we can look back and say it was a failed system and there were abuses that went on. There was violence. Apologies are being issued to this day and we are continuing to work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
Annett and his group have held similar protests across the country against Catholic, Anglican and United churches.
The group's demands include the churches withdrawing from all aboriginal territories and surrendering their buildings to hereditary chiefs.
Each region in Canada now has a residential school survivors society and Ted Quewezance is executive-director of the society's headquarters in Sault St. Marie, Ont.
"If there's factual information he (Annett) wants to share with us we'd gladly (accept it). All survivor groups are trying to look after any missing children files."
Quewezance said there are about 86,000 "survivors" across the country and so about 83,000 have applied for compensation under a program set up by the federal government.