: This story is about the neglect and abuse suffered by children in residential schools in Canada. Those affected by schools can call the Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 for support.
September 30, 2021 – The discovery in recent months of more than 1,300 anonymous graves at the sites of former residential schools in Canada has brought to light a horrific chapter in the country’s history. Residential school survivors share their stories at events across the country for the first National Truth and Reconciliation Day on September 30. The new federal holiday honors lost children and residential school survivors, their families and communities.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who investigated the residential school system in 2015, found that about half of recorded deaths were attributed to tuberculosis (TB).
Most tuberculosis deaths in schools occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when tuberculosis was a major public health problem in Canada and no reliable drug treatment existed. But that doesn’t mean the deaths were inevitable or unexpected, says Elizabeth Rea, MD, assistant medical officer of health with Toronto Public Health and a member of the Stop TB Canada steering committee.
“The risk factors for tuberculosis were well known in the medical community at the time,” she says.
Fatal rates of tuberculosis
These conditions – overcrowding, poverty, malnutrition and poor ventilation – were the norm in indigenous communities and, in particular, in residential schools, which contributed to disproportionate rates of tuberculosis.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the annual death rate from tuberculosis in indigenous populations was about 700 per 100,000 people – about 20 times higher than in the general population – but in residential schools it was 8,000 per 100,000 population.
The Canadian government was aware of this disparity and its cause. In 1907 Peter Bryce, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Health at the Department of Indian Affairs, investigated the schools and reported that it was “almost as if the prime conditions for the outbreak of epidemics had been deliberately created,” and he insisted that the system be overhauled to improve conditions.
But Bryce – who was president of the American Public Health Association in 1900 and drafted Canada’s first public health law, which then served as a model across North America – has been ignored by the government. His report was suppressed, his funding was cut, and he was ultimately kicked out of public service.
A national crime: reported
“The government did not refute its findings, it simply chose not to help, to let these children die,” said Cindy Blackstock, PhD, executive director of the Child and Family Caring Society. First Nations of Canada.
Bryce wasn’t the only whistleblower, according to Blackstock; a lot of people at the time knew about the problem and understood that it was wrong. When his 1907 report leaked to the press, it sparked indignant headlines in the newspapers and suggestions from lawyers that the government was guilty of manslaughter.
But all of this had little impact on government policy. Responding to Bryce’s report, Duncan Campbell Scott, Chief of Indian Affairs, wrote: “It is easily recognized that Indian children lose their natural resistance to disease by getting used so closely in residential schools and they are dying at such a rate. much higher than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this department, which is oriented towards a definitive solution of our Indian problem.
Although the last residential school closed in 1997, the effect of the system on survivors and their families continues. Tuberculosis continues to be a serious public health problem in Indigenous communities, particularly those in the Arctic, but the history of neglect and abuse in tuberculosis residential schools, hospitals and sanatoriums has left a legacy of mistrust. medicine among Indigenous people, says Tina Campbell, RN and TB advisor with the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority.
The damaging legacy of schools goes far beyond tuberculosis care, says Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Survivors often turn to alcohol, drugs or suicide to cope with their trauma, which in turn inflicts many of the same problems on subsequent generations.
“Survivors have held ugly truths for so long, and that leads to other things that are not always healthy,” she says.
Canada’s bishops apologized on Monday for the church’s role in school abuse and pledged $ 30 million to support Indigenous reconciliation projects for residential school survivors.
The country is moving in the right direction in terms of reconciliation with indigenous peoples, White says, but progress is slow and the government’s actions rarely match its promises. For their part, the survivors want to make sure that the next generation does not have to go through what they went through.
“They want to break the cycle and complete their healing journey,” she says.