A National Shame

res school

Today’s release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report reminded me of a report on TB in the residential schools that showed that as many as 50% of indigenous children did not live to use their education.

According to a 2007 Globe and Mail report, medical officials repeatedly warned Ottawa of the dangers of tuberculosis infection for residential school children. Indigenous children who were sick with TB were often not sent out to hospitals because the church-run schools would lose that child’s per-capita funding from the federal government. Dying children slept beside well children in the dormitories.

Tuberculosis is a highly infectious, airborne disease, and Canada’s indigenous people were uniquely susceptible to the disease for a variety of reasons. In the early 1950s, in the James Bay community where my novel is set, as many as 9 in 10 people were infected. Residential schools became incubators for the disease.

As early as 1909, the department of Indian Affairs received reports from medical officials including the department’s chief medical officer, Dr Peter Bryce. His reports, showing the high death rates from TB in the schools, were acknowledged by the most senior Indian Affairs official, Duncan Campbell Scott (quoted in the House of Commons in 1920 as saying that the goal was to “get rid of the Indian problem”). Dr Bryce’s recommendations were rejected.

From a 1914 essay by Duncan Campbell Scott:

It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit form the education which they had received therein.

Dr Bryce, who first sounded the alarm, was shuffled to another department. The position of chief medical officer was terminated and the government appears to have collected no further statistics on the matter.

It’s a national shame.