BC government hands over death records to TRC

In October 1956, Charles Ombash, aged 12, and his brother, Tom, aged 14, left the Pelican Falls Residential School near Sioux Lookout, Ontario. Having planned to canoe back to Cat Lake or alternately, take the train to Savant Lake, a ride to Pickle Lake and then canoe to Cat Lake, their families have not seen them since. 

Another heartbreaking incident involved the deaths of four boys, two aged 8 and two aged 9, in early January 1937. After excessive corporal punishment, the boys ran away from a residential school near Vanderhoof, B.C. The four bodies were found huddled and frozen together in ice on the Fraser Lake, barely a kilometre from home.

It has long been speculated among every Ongwehoweh nation across Turtle Island whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents went to residential schools that many children never made it home from these schools.

The questions today are how many children perished in these schools and what was their cause of death? Through the Missing Children Project, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is currently trying to get an accurate count of the number of children who died in residential schools, the causes for their deaths and where they are buried.

The TRC has so far confirmed about 4,100 deaths, but that number is expected to rise as they have so far only been able to access partial government documents. TRC researchers are also tracking down cemeteries through death records, historical records, survivor testimony, photographs and the use of ground penetrating radar.

Last Friday the B.C. government handed over 4,900 death records to the TRC. The records include all the deaths of First Nations children ages of 4 to 19 between 1870 and 1984. The task of the TRC researchers now is to sift through all the records and find out which ones died in residential schools.

Last week Alberta also followed suit and handed over 41 DVDs to the TRC, containing around 10,000 death records of First Nations people between 1923 and 1945. The job now is to also sift through these records and find out which ones died in the provinces 25 residential schools.

Nova Scotia, which was home to one residential school called Shubenacadie also recently turned over around 125 death records from 1922 to 1968. Thirteen of those records were of students who died in the residential school.

Ontario has yet to hand over its records and Quebec has ignored repeated requests to hand over its records as well. It is widely known that the number one killer at these schools was disease, mainly tuberculosis as many residential schools did not have good ventilation systems. But it is also known through survivor testimony that many children died unnatural, mysterious and violent deaths.

By getting the government death records of First Nations child deaths in all the provinces, the TRC can then find out which ones died in residential schools and also hopefully find out how they died and where they are buried as many families have waited decades to find closure.

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