So far there are 120 cases identified by Ontario’s Coroner’s Office of missing and dead children from the province‘s Indian reidential schools, and it’s said this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Ontario has taken the lead in the search for information that might help families learn what happened to their children, removed from them and sent to the schools, never to be seen again. The province’s Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs provided $20,000 to the coroner’s office to hire staff to carry out a search of the records. That work began earlier this year.
Using an electronic search, 5,000 cases were chosen from 250,000 coroner’s files. Each of those files was read through in light of information presented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and 120 files were pulled for final examination by the TRC.
“When we look at the number of schools and survivors who went to school in the West, we can just imagine what’s out there in the West. Ontario didn’t have as many schools as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba,” said Kimberly Murray, executive director with the TRC.
Murray met with chief coroners and chief medical officers at their national annual meeting in Quebec in early June to discuss the role their offices could play to bring closure to families who still do not know the fate of their children.
“I called on them to do their own searches in their own records…. I think they’re all committed to trying to help us,” said Murray. “They need to go back and look at their resources and see how they can do this.”
Murray noted that most coroners’ offices have not been in operation for the entire time period residential schools ran.
In 2007, the Missing Children Working Group was formed to prepare recommendations for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding the students who died or went missing while in attendance at Indian residential schools. The research recommendations included an examination of the number and causes of death, illnesses and disappearances of children at the residential schools, as well as the location of burial sites.
Murray said the TRC is in the process of gathering information from church and government records, as well as residential school survivors themselves. But another avenue that was identified was that of coroners’ records.
“If it looked like the case could reasonably be a residential school death, we pulled it out,” said Dr. David Eden, who led the records search on behalf of the coroner’s office.
The files were examined with a number of factors in mind, he said, including age of the deceased, if he could be identified as Aboriginal, links to communities, how he died, where he died, information from police reports, where he was interred and where the investigation of the death took place. Web sites with information on residential schools were consulted.
“I would describe it as a combination of art and science,” said Eden.
Eden said there are still approximately 2,000 paper files to go through, which are pre-1965. Many of them are from northern Ontario so he expects they will yield more missing residential school children.
The coroner’s office only has files of deaths that were investigated by the office and after 1965. The rest of the files fall under the purview of the Attorney General.
Eden noted that his office has also confirmed suspected cases of missing residential school children based on information provided by the TRC. Those figures are not part of the 120 files that are being given a second look.
“It’s a moving target. (The TRC is) integrating all the information they have, sending us new cases on a regular basis, still having families coming forward and still finding things in files,” he said. “I certainly expect to find more cases.”
Eden has spoken with his counterparts in Quebec, British Columbia, Nunavut and Nova Scotia and has offered his office’s expertise in pulling files and gathering information. Murray also noted that preliminary discussions have taken place with B.C. and the Northwest Territories.
The next step, she said, will be to send official letters to the appropriate government departments and hope that, along with support, provincial or territorial funding will be made available to conduct the necessary research.
Murray said that the coroners and medical officers suggested other areas the TRC could examine in order to find more records of missing and dead residential school children, including vital statistics offices and burial ground records.
Records from sanatoriums will also be accessed, she said.
“Everywhere we go we’re going to have to look at provincial regulations and see who is in charge of what,” said Murray.
The TRC will use the information to create a registry of the children who went missing or died while attending residential schools. Some died on the premises while others died after running away. Murray is hopeful that the registry will continue to be added to after the TRC’s mandate ends in 2014. That registry will be kept at the National Research Centre.
“We’ll never know really how many deaths there were, but we will do our best to find what we can,” said Murray.