Residential schools subjected students to disease, abuse, experiments: TRC report

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Many children sent to residential schools never came home: killed by disease, accidents, fires and others hurt by physical and sexual abuse.

In many cases, poor living conditions, inadequate food and government indifference or hostility worsened these problems for the students, according to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released Tuesday.

The Commission heard from thousands of survivors and combed through historical documents to come up with a picture of life at Canada’s residential schools – and it’s not pretty.

READ MORE: Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report details atrocities of residential schools

Here are some of the dangers students faced at residential school, taken from the TRC final report.

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Before 1940, tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in residential schools – even more than in the general population, the report found. In 1880, the tuberculosis death rate in Montreal and Toronto peaked at 200 out of every 100,000 people, according to the report.

The death rate from tuberculosis at residential schools meanwhile was upwards of 4,000 out of every 100,000 people, according to one contemporary estimate at the turn of the century.

Conditions at the schools exacerbated the problems. According to a report, an inspector found a girl at the Sarcee school near Calgary in 1920 in a “pitiable” state, “curled up in a bed that is filthy, in a room that is untidy, dirty and dilapidated, in the north-west corner of the building with no provision of balcony, sunshine or fresh air. Both sides of her neck and chest are swollen and five foul ulcers are discovered when we lift the bandages. This gives her pain, and her tears from her fear of being touched, intensifies the picture of her misery.”

READ MORE: In their words – What residential school survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Influenza also swept through the schools. In 1918, when much of the country was dealing with a flu pandemic, Margaret Butcher described conditions at a school in Kitamaat, B.C.:

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Those children were very sick and what with vomiting, dysentery, nose-bleeding & senior girls’ troubles, we had a horrible time. I never saw such nose-bleeding. We could not stop it & when it transpired that the only girl whose nose did not bleed, suffered hallucinations & was out of bed and trailing bedding or clothes crying she had killed herself or the house or her darling, or else asking me to cut her in pieces or she [was] hunting for her lungs or other parts of her body that had fallen out, I sure put up with the bleeding as a beneficent evil rather than have several crazy ones.

After bleeding came congestion in varying degrees & horrible expectoration until it seemed impossible that children who a few days previously had been in good health could throw up such quantities of vile mucous.

WATCH: Justice Sinclair: We did this for the children of today


Fire was a source of more problems, according to the report. Various inspectors described some schools as “death traps” and dormitory doors were frequently locked – making it hard for students to escape.

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In 1927, nineteen boys died in a fire in the Beauval school in northern Saskatchewan. An inquest absolved the school of blame.

In 1946, two boys, Oliver Sinclair and Donald Beardy, saved the lives of many students when the Norway House, Manitoba school burned down in 1946. According to a community history quoted in the report:

All the boys were fast asleep. Donald knew the doors were always locked, but that was not why he found it hard to relax. Lying under the warmth of the blankets, the air in the dormitory was making Donald feel like sneezing.

Something was making his nostrils quite itchy. Finally, Donald sat up to clear his nasal and throat passages; it was then he noticed the room was full of greyish black smoke. Clearing his eyes, he knew instinctively everyone was in great danger. He shook his friend Oliver, who was sleeping in the next bed. He did not need to show him the smoke, as Oliver had woken up and could see it for himself. Donald ordered Oliver to wake up the rest of the boys while he woke up the girls in the next dormitory.

Donald tried to open the door which the supervisors always locked. He kept banging and pushing until it finally gave away. He ran to the girls’ dormitory and told everyone to get out quickly. By this time the boys were already getting away through the fire escapes. Soon, one by one the girls came flying down the fire escapes, too.

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Down to the ground below Donald and Oliver hurried, so that they could catch each one as they came sliding down.

WATCH: TRC says they’ve identified 3,200 people who died, but estimate there’s ‘double’ that amount


Students at various residential schools were also used as involuntary guinea pigs in a variety of experiments, notably a number of studies on nutrition.

Students were given more or less milk, some were given vitamin C tablets (and others were not), some were given vitamin-enriched flour, and others were not. The intent was to determine whether these dietary interventions cut the incidence of various diseases – but the control group students were never given the chance to share in any benefits, and in some cases, children were denied access to dental care or iron supplements.

They were also used as research subjects without their or their parents’ consent.

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WATCH: Trudeau offers another apology on behalf of Canada for failing Aboriginal community ‘so profoundly’


Corporal punishment was common at residential schools, with many students describing being strapped or beaten.

Many students also experienced sexual abuse. In 1939, one student reported what had happened to him the year before:

One day just before Christmas, it was December 23rd, 1938, Father [name redacted] took me out in his boat, we went to the other side of Gabriola Island, he told me to take my pants down in the boat, he anchored the boat and told me to take my pants off as we were going to bed. It was day time, I took them off because if I didn’t he told me he would throw me off the boat into the water, I lay down on the bed, he got into bed beside me, he was playing with my thing, he was trying to put his thing into me, he could not get it in so he asked me to play with his thing.
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The student went on to describe, in further detail, how he was abused.

The full final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is available on their website.

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