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Finding those lost to a tragic history

Joanne Henry won't give the boy's name. But when she speaks of him it's clear she's remembering a close friend. They were students together at Coudert Hall in Whitehorse.

Joanne Henry won’t give the boy’s name. But when she speaks of him it’s clear she’s remembering a close friend.

They were students together at Coudert Hall in Whitehorse, one of three residential schools Henry attended as a child.

“He was my buddy,” she said.

One day, her friend decided to go swimming with a group of other students. She was sick and couldn’t come along.

After the trip to the water, the group returned but her friend wasn’t there.

“I kept asking, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ Nobody would really say anything and then someone just kind of yelled and said, ‘Well he died. He drowned in the swimming pool.’”

Staff at the school didn’t talk about it, she remembers. Students were expected to just carry on.

“It was like he was nothing, but to me he was something, he was my friend,” she said.

Now a grown woman, Henry is executive director of CAIRS, the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools, in Whitehorse.

In her position, she often hears the stories of other people whose friends and family died or just disappeared while attending residential schools.

“I know of these situations where the parent has gone to the airport to wait for their child, after not seeing their child for years, and the child doesn’t come home,” she said.

“And then they find out that they don’t know where the child is, they don’t know what happened to them.”


Filling in the blanks

Henry has passed her friend’s name on to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Missing Children Project.

The project’s goal is to identify how many children died or went missing as a result of being sent to Canada’s residential schools.

It’s a massive amount of documentation that keeps getting bigger. Fractured records reflect the many fractured lives left in the wake of a school system that forced aboriginal children from their families and tried to strip them of any cultural identity.

Some documents have names of dead students but no cause of death. Some only mention a death, but nothing to identify the child who once lived. Many are missing burial sites.

“Little hill in graveyard” reads one burial note connected to Yukon’s Shingle Point School.

“Buried on hillside overlooking the Yukon,” is the only location provided on another.

“Some (deaths) are quite documented,” the commission’s executive director, Kimberly Murray, told the News this week.

“Then there are others where all we have is a note in a quarterly return saying ‘three students died this year.’ All we know is three students died this year, who were they?”

Project staff comb through records from a variety of sources; death certificates, school records and other reports. They match up whatever they can to try and come up with a more complete story.

Early records released by the federal government were used to uncover about 4,100 children’s deaths.

Of those, about 50 are children who died either at, or as a result of, Yukon’s residential schools.

Some of them are currently nameless.

Half have no listed cause of death.

The most common recorded causes of death on the Yukon records are diseases like tuberculosis, Murray said.

She is certain the number of deaths from schools across the country will climb as more records are found.

“I know that without a doubt that the number will go up.”

The 4,100 estimate was reached before the commission won a significant court case last year.

That January, an Ontario Superior Court judge ordered that the federal government provide reams of additional records from Library and Archives Canada.

Now researchers are scrambling to get through as many documents as possible, to identify as many children as possible, before the end of their mandate in June 2015.

“We immediately targeted Health Canada records because that’s where the hospital files are, so we are finding more records in those files of students’ deaths. So we now have to add those to the list,” Murray said.

“The problem we’re having is that (in Health Canada records) they’re not identified as students. We find the death of a young person and we have to cross reference to see if they were registered (at a school).”


Yukon asked to help

To help fill in other gaps, the commission has reached out to every province and territory in Canada looking for things such as death certificates.

In December, British Columbia became the first province to release some information. Commission staff were sent documentation on about 4,000 First Nation children, ages four to 19, who died between 1917 and 1956.

The Yukon government said yesterday, after being questioned by the News, that it too would be providing information.

The territory’s vital statistics are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Services.

A letter from the commission was sent to the department in January.

Gathering data should start within the next two weeks, spokesperson Pat Living said yesterday.

In the Yukon all files are on paper, she said, nothing is digitized. This means the records will have to be gone through manually and placed on a spreadsheet to be handed over.

In B.C., some older death records include information on a person’s ancestry. That is not the case in the Yukon, Living said.

It is not clear how long the territory expects to take to fulfill the request.


A shameful past

When Canada was created in 1867, churches were already operating a few boarding schools for aboriginal children. In the 1880s the federal government fully embraced the residential school model.

In the end there were more than 130 residential schools across the country. The last one closed in 1996.

Schools were built in the Yukon. Yukon children were also sent Outside.

It’s estimated that more than 150,000 First Nation, Metis and Inuit children were taken from their families.

Efforts at assimilation began almost right away. Children were forbidden to speak their own language or practise their own culture.

Today, there are an estimated 80,000 former students still living, according to the commission.

The commission itself was first formed in 2008, following a lawsuit between the government, First Nations and a number of churches.

Since then it has held public hearings across the country so former students can have their stories heard. Often they are stories of isolation and abuse.

The commission also heard from parents of former students.

“We have heard from survivors that say they don’t know what happened to their brother. Or a parent or a grandparent saying, ‘I don’t know what happened to my child,’” Murray said.

The list being created will be kept at the commission’s national research centre and will be accessible to families.

Earlier this year, the federal government announced it would extend the commission’s mandate, moving the deadline for its final report to June 30, 2015.


Time is running out

Murray is blunt when it comes to the chances of finishing all the work in time for the report.

“I feel confident in saying this work will not be done by the end of our mandate and it will have to be continued on ... (by) the national research centre or other organizations,” she said.

She expressed frustration that all the documents from the country’s archives came so late, and only after a court order.

“It’s very frustrating because I think if we were able to have access to all this information five years ago that we might have been able to complete the work,” she said.


Moving towards healing

Both Henry and Murray recognize the importance of the work, no matter how long it takes.

“Maybe there are parents out there looking for their child today, and the child could have been dead for the last 40 or 50 years,” Henry said.

“To finally be able to close the door on that, to finally be able to know what happened to your child. For anybody that’s going to make them feel better.”

Murray said this information is something people have been asking for.

“We hear from survivors and their families and inter-generational survivors that they can’t have healing when they have this sort of wound in their family history.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at