With this month’s revelation that at least 3,000 children died in Canada’s residential school system, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation elder Roy Sanderson believes that even more perished.
“I’m trying to wake up the government, because do you know where they are? They’re at a standstill, doing nothing,” Sanderson, now a resident of Prince Albert, said.
“The estimated 3,000 people who passed away – the numbers have got to be higher. It’s not 3,000 -- it has to be more.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s research manager Alex Maass was central in putting together this toll of confirmed deaths, noting that the 3,000 figure is tentative.
“I suspect that the numbers that we have to this point are quite low,” she said by phone this week from her Vancouver office.
“We don’t expect to add to this number by a great deal, however we will make the proviso that we know we haven’t even looked at all the documents that the commission is expected to be provided with.”
With the Department of Indian Affairs discontinuing their tracking of deaths by about 1915, a large gap is being filled by survivor testimonies, gravesites and various other things, she explained.
An additional five million documents that are expected to be relevant have yet to be considered.
The biggest cause of death was tuberculosis, with students’ high level of stress serving as a catalyst for sickness.
“We know that children were arriving at the schools under very stressful situations,” Maass said, citing their removal from parents as a jarring introduction to the system indicative of what was to come.
“They couldn’t ask for something as simple as the washroom,” she said. “They were often disciplined if they spoke in their own language … We know that stress compromises the immune system.”
Sanderson is familiar with the stress associated with the residential school system, having spent four years in a day school and eight years at St. Michaels -- a Duck Lake based residential school.
Feeling a weight lifted off his shoulders in sharing his story, the pipe-carrying elder, 63, said that the day schools were just as bad as the better-publicized residential schools.
“There was nothing there,” he said of the schools, which had students in for 10 to 12-hour school days. “Strictly rules, that’s it. From the time you go in to the time you get out.”
During a childhood away from his parents, Sanderson learned alongside his peers how to take physical punishment.
“Twelve to 15 lashes on your hand, for what?” he asked. “Stepping out on the front yard. I don’t think that’s right … I got a lot of lickings like that.”
We never got nothing by being in a residential school. My part, I didn’t get no education – what do you get? At least people are looking forward to some kind of compensation. - Elder Roy Sanderson
Many of his peers faced belts to the posterior and sexual abuse, he added.
Religion was drilled into students, he said, with three high masses per Sunday and two additional church sessions on Mondays and Thursdays.
“You were praying to God too much, those days,” he said.
In true residential school fashion, students weren’t allowed to eat beforehand, so they often fainted while at church, Sanderson said.
With no explanation provided, Sanderson remembers never seeing some of his peers again.
To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recorded 97 deaths at St. Michael’s during its approximate 80-year history -- an above-average figure, Maass said, noting that they recorded 42 at the Prince Albert Residential School.
With these deaths indicative of the harsh living conditions and high-stress lifestyle of the residential school student, Sanderson wants to see the government reconsider its residential school system restitution progress.
Although he spent 12 years in the system, he’s yet to receive his restitution, and neither has his wife.
Sanderson suspects that the government is waiting until more residential school survivors die and are therefore unable to request restitution.
“We’re still alive here, a lot of us, in 2013,” he said. “Hopefully we see the day where something happens on this.”
Restitution is important, he added, because “at least we get something.”
“We never got nothing by being in a residential school. My part, I didn’t get no education – what do you get? At least people are looking forward to some kind of compensation.”
Maass expects a somewhat finalized report within about a year, which will be submitted for public consumption.
But, she added that work is expected to continue in one form or another as other researchers come forward to dig even deeper into the residential school system.
In the meantime, Sanderson is looking for a lawyer to initiate a class action suit regarding restitution. The sooner the better, he said, noting that “a lot of the survivors aren’t here today, and they should have been paid.”
He wants his phone number made public and for a lawyer to contact him at 922-3228.
“What I’m worried about, is, is this going to fade away?” he asked. “It’s going to fade away if nobody looks into this.”