Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Canada's moral panic


Kamloops Indian Residential School, 1930 (Wikicommons, Archives Deschâtelets-NDC)



Last May, ground-penetrating radar revealed the existence of 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, apparently the remains of Indigenous children who had once lived there. A moral panic swept across Canada. How could so many children have died at a boarding school? The answer seemed obvious:


Turpel-Lafond also has questions about how these children died given the rampant sexual and physical abuse documented in residential schools.


"There may be reasons why they wouldn't record the deaths properly and that they weren't treated with dignity and respect because that was the whole purpose of the residential school ... to take total control of Indian children, to remove their culture, identity and connection to their family" (Dickson and Watson 2021)


The school had been run by a Catholic order, and the following weeks saw dozens of Catholic churches set afire across Western Canada, to the acclaim of tweets from journalists and lawyers — "Burn it all down!" The Prime Minister waited several days before saying that such destruction is "not the way to go."


Is the moral panic justified? To answer that question, let me break it down into two parts:


1. Were the children buried without "dignity and respect"? Were these "mass graves"? Were the graves "unmarked"?


2. Was the death rate at Kamloops Residential School abnormally high? How does it compare to the death rate of Canadian Indigenous people at that time and to Canadians in general at that time?


Burial without dignity?


Many news reports have used the term "mass graves" The reader is left with the impression that large numbers of bodies were hastily buried, as in Cambodia under Pol Pot … In reality, the children were buried over a long span of time, from the opening of the school in 1890 to its takeover by the federal government in 1969. Moreover, the initial estimate of 215 has since been revised downward to 200 "potential burial sites" (RCI 2021).


Just as inaccurate is the term "unmarked grave." When graves were found behind another residential school, one of its former pupils, Sophie Pierre, pointed out that the site had long been known to be an abandoned graveyard:


According to Pierre, wooden crosses that originally marked the gravesites had been burned or deteriorated over the years.  Using a wooden marker at a gravesite remains a practice that continues to this day in many Indigenous communities across Canada. (MacVicar 2021)

In the past, it was common to mark a grave with a wooden cross, especially if the deceased had left no money for the purchase of a stone marker. This was particularly true for Catholics, for whom cremation was not an option.


Abnormally high death rate?


The death rate at the Kamloops school, and at Indian residential schools in general, is said to have been abnormally high:


The deadliest years for Indian Residential Schools were from the 1870s to the 1920s. In the first six years after its 1884 opening, for instance, the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School saw the deaths of more than 40 per cent of its students. Sacred Heart Residential School in Southern Alberta had an annual student death rate of one in 20.


But despite occasional efforts at reform, even as late as the 1940s the death rates within residential schools were up to five times higher than among Canadian children as a whole. (Hopper 2021)


The above figures come from a study by Jeff Rosenthal (2015). I haven't been able to locate it (it was not published in a journal), but I will attempt my own study. Did the Kamloops residential school have an unusually high death rate?


To answer that question, we need to know not only the total number of deaths (i.e., the 200 burials) but also the sum of the annual enrolments over the 80 years of the school's existence. The enrolment was published each year in the annual report of the Department of Indian Affairs until 1939. For that period, the total is 5,829 pupil-years. For the period from 1940 to the school's closure in 1969, we have to use guesswork. There were 345 pupils in 1939, and enrolment peaked at 500 in the early 1950s (Favrholdt 2020). If we assume an average of 400 pupils per year for 1940 to 1969, we get a total enrolment for the school's existence of 17,829 pupil-years. The annual death rate was therefore, on average, 1.1%.


That is much less than Rosenthal’s estimates. On the other hand, we know that the Canadian death rate fell dramatically during the twentieth century, initially through improvements in sanitation and then after the 1940s through the use of streptomycin and other new antibiotics. Would we get a higher death rate if we confined our calculations to the school's early years? This is, in fact, part of Rosenthal's argument: the death rate was high at residential schools before 1950, and not during their entire existence.


We know the death rate at the Kamloops school during its early years. The deaths were noted in the annual reports of the Department of Indian Affairs for the first twenty-four years of the school’s existence. The first nine years saw no deaths at all. Then from 1899 to 1913 there were 12, for an annual death rate of 1.34%. The causes of death were given as pneumonia (2), tuberculosis (1), consumption (1), pulmonary disease (1), hemoptysis (1), rheumatic fever (1), meningitis (1), “took place at her home” (1), heart disease (1), measles (1), and diarrhea (1). The first five were probably all tuberculosis. The deaths began to occur three years after a doubling of the enrolment, probably because of the higher risk of infection by other pupils.


After 1913, we have to use guesswork. The death rate may have risen with further increases in enrolment during the late 1920s to eight times the original level. Nonetheless, it could not have risen much. If we assume a maximum death rate of 1.7% between 1926 and 1950, followed by a lower rate of 0.55%, we already get a total of 199 deaths—almost the same number as the number of graves behind the school:

Could we nudge up the maximum of 1.7% by nudging down the 0.55% death rate for 1950-1969? Not really. We have age-specific mortality of Alberta Indians for 1974-1978: an average of 0.38% for ages 5 to 14 (Millar 1982). For Indigenous Canadians as a whole the crude death rate fell from 10.9 in 1960 to 7.5 in 1970 (Piché and George 1973). If we extrapolate back in time by increasing the average of 0.38% by 45%, Indigenous children 5-14 years old in 1960 would have had an estimated death rate of 0.55%. The actual death rate was probably higher, since we are extrapolating back in time from 1970, and not from 1974-78.


A maximum death rate of 1.7% is far from Rosenthal’s estimates. Moreover, the total of 200 burials would include deaths from the Spanish flu of 1918-19, an event for which the school could hardly be held responsible. How many children died then? The Department of Indian Affairs stopped publishing health data on the Kamloops school after 1914, but the 1919 annual report did describe the ravages of the Spanish flu in British Columbia:


The most serious setback to the health of the Indians of British Columbia during the year was the epidemic of Spanish influenza which was particularly severe in the Kamloops and Lytton bands, the former having a death-roll of 194 up to the first week in December, 1918, and the latter of over 100 in the months of October and November. (Indian Affairs 1919, p. 52)


How does an annual death rate between 1.34 and 1.7% compare to the average annual death rate of Canadian children at that time? Before 1921, the government did not regularly publish age-specific mortality. We have that kind of data only from that year and from succeeding years, as well as from 1881:

The school's death rate of 1.34% from 1899 to 1913 seems to have been two to three times the Canadian average. This is, in fact, the same excess mortality we see for Canadian Indigenous people in general at that time. According to the 1906 annual report of the Department of Indian Affairs, "the Indian population of Canada has a mortality rate of more than double that of the whole population, and in some provinces more than three times" (Indian Affairs 1906, p. 275).


After 1913, the gap would have widened between the death rate at the Kamloops school and the Canadian average, perhaps because of an increase in the school’s death rate but much more so because of the sharp drop in the Canadian death rate. Death rates fell more slowly in Indigenous communities, and not just at residential schools. Chief Medical Officer Peter Bryce blamed a "lack of sanitary knowledge" among formerly nomadic peoples that previously had no need for such knowledge due to the small size of each band and its continual relocation from one place to another:


That the one dominating cause of the excessive mortality everywhere is this lack of sanitary knowledge or of how to live in houses, and that the death-rate is due to the same cause, tuberculosis, which has operated with the same fatal effect amongst all people living in the same stage of civilization when once introduced among them.


[T]he prevalence of tuberculosis amongst the bands is not due to insufficient food, though doubtless poorly preserved and badly cooked food may tend to lessen individual resistance; but it is due directly to infection introduced by one member of a family into a small, often crowded, house, and there, as dried sputum collects on filthy floors and walls, is spread from one to another so certainly and at times so rapidly that one consumptive has in a single winter infected all the members of a household as certainly and rapidly as if he had had small-pox.


[F]rom such houses infected children have been received into schools, notably the boarding and industrial schools, and in the school-room, but especially in the dormitories, frequently over-crowded and ill-ventilated, have been the agents of direct infection.


[C]hildren infected in the schools have been sent home when too ill to remain at school, or because of being a danger to the other scholars, and have conveyed the disease to houses previously free.


[O]wing to the simple habits of the Indian, common to all people at their stage, visiting from house to house is a chief feature of the day's occupation, and the sick, are visited or go visiting, and through their expectorations serve to steadily spread the infection. (Indian Affairs 1906, pp. 275-276)


I quote Peter Bryce at length because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission cited him as a source for its criticisms of the residential school system. Bryce's argument, however, was that the residential schools would not have become a secondary source of infection if the home communities had not been a primary source.




1. There was no "mass grave." The burials took place over a long period stretching from 1899 to the 1960s.


2. The graves are today "unmarked." At the time of burial, however, they probably had wooden markers, which have since decayed and disappeared.


3.  To account for the 200 graves, there is no need to assume the high annual death rates put forward in Jeff Rosenthal's study, certainly not one out of twenty pupils.


4. The school had no deaths at all during its first nine years. For the next fourteen years, it had an annual death rate of 1.34%—in line with the annual death rate of Canadian Indigenous people at that time. The gap between the school’s death rate and the Canadian average then widened. First, the school’s death rate may have risen to 1.7% because of the growth in enrolment and a corresponding growth in opportunities for infection. Second, and more importantly, the Canadian death rate fell dramatically during the early to mid-twentieth century. The gap then narrowed after the 1940s with the introduction of streptomycin and other antibiotics.


To reduce the school's death rate to a level below that of the pupils' home communities, the school would have had to impose medical screening on incoming students, particularly for tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. This was one of Peter Bryce's recommendations. However, a reliable test for latent TB would not be developed until the 1940s. Bryce also recommended increased ventilation of the dormitories, but that measure would have been possible only in summer. At that time, the most effective measures against TB were preventive: regular hand washing, daily bathing, no spitting, etc. Those measures took decades to inculcate into Euro-Canadians, and it would have taken just as long to incorporate them into Indigenous culture.


Yes, there was a vaccine against TB, but it did not enter widespread use until the late 1920s and did not prevent primary tuberculosis infection. In hindsight, the best preventive measure would have been to cap school enrolment at thirty pupils, in order to reduce the number of possible hosts for TB and other infectious pathogens.


The Kamloops Indian Residential School was not a death camp. The risk of death was about the same there as in the pupils' home communities. Nor was there a "mass grave." The burials took place over the eight decades of the school’s existence. The “unmarked graves” originally had wooden markers, which decomposed and disappeared over the years. The graveyard itself was abandoned with the closure of the school in 1969.


The residential school system was wrong but it was wrong for other reasons.




Canadian Human Mortality Database (2021). Department of Demography, Université de Montréal


Collection of Canadian Life Tables, 1801-2011


Dickson, C., and B. Watson (2021). Remains of 215 children found buried at former B.C. residential school, First Nation says. CBC News, May 27


Favrholdt, K. (2020). Kamloops History: The dark and difficult legacy of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Kamloops This Week, October 7


Hopper, T. (2021). Why so many children died at Indian Residential Schools At some schools, annual death rates were as high as one in 20. National Post, May 29


Indian Affairs (1890-1969). Annual Report. Ottawa


MacVicar, A. (2021). 'We knew it was there': Former B.C. chief says unmarked graves near Cranbrook need more context. Global News, July 1


Malcolm, C. (2021). Six things the media got wrong about the graves found near Residential Schools. True North, July 12


Millar, W.J. (1982). Mortality patterns in a Canadian Indian population. Canadian Studies in Population 9: 17-31.



Piché, V., and M.V. George. (1973). Estimates of vital rates for the Canadian Indians, 1960-1970. Demography 10(3): 367-382.


RCI (2021). Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc release final report on unmarked graves at former Kamloops residential school. RCI, July 15


Residential Schools in Canada (2021). In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from


Rosenthal, J.S. (2015). Statistical Analysis of Deaths at Residential Schools (282 pages including tables and graphs). Statistical analysis conducted on behalf of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, for their report "Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future"