WARNING: This story contains distressing details and images.
New information uncovered by Radio-Canada’s investigative program, Enquête, suggests there were perhaps dozens more deaths in Quebec residential schools than the 38 officially reported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Combining newly uncovered photographs, previously unpublished reports and interviews with survivors, Enquête found several instances of deaths of Indigenous children in Quebec that aren’t reflected in the official numbers.
Some of the children died from illness. Some were victims of abuse who later died under nebulous circumstances.
Janie Pachano remembers one such case.
Pachano is a survivor of St. Philip’s Indian Residential School on Fort George Island. She told Radio-Canada that the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., in June 2021 awakened a 70-year-old memory in her.
“I started crying,” Pachano said. “I couldn’t stop.”
When Pachano was 10, on a cold day in February 1951, she says she saw a young girl named Ellen Bobbish sitting on the floor with her head resting on her knees.
Pachano said a supervisor ordered Bobbish to dress to go outside, but Bobbish replied that she was too ill.
“The supervisor kicked her in the ribs and back, and she slid to the door. The supervisor eventually kicked her outside,” Pachano said.
“A few days later, they announced to us as we were lining up for supper, they announced that she had died,” Pachano said.
“And they said don’t you talk about this. She’s gone. Don’t talk about this anymore,” Pachano said.
Bobbish’s name doesn’t appear on the official list of those who died, but Pachano believes her remains are probably on the site of the former school.
Radio-Canada discovered traces of 12 other children who may have died at one of the two residential schools on Fort George Island.
Last June, Cree officials announced they would use ground penetrating radar (GPR) to search the sites for unmarked graves. The search will begin next summer.
One of the more disturbing pieces of evidence of more deaths of children uncovered by Radio-Canada is a photograph recently added to the archives of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The photo shows Father Maurice Grenon, who was director of the Saint-Marc-de-Figuery residential school in Amos from 1955-1868.
Officially, no children died at that school.
But in the photograph, Father Grenon is looking down at the open casket of an Indigenous girl, as a handful of children look on. There are no other adults in the photograph.
WARNING: The text below contains a distressing image.
Marie-Pier Bosquet, director of Indigenous studies at Université de Montreal, was surprised when Radio-Canada showed her the picture.
She too had believed there had been no deaths at the Saint-Marc-de-Figuery school.
“This photo has come to change my mind,” Bosquet told Radio-Canada.
Richard Kistabish, a survivor who was at the school in the 1960s, told Radio-Canada he’d heard stories of at least three children who never turned up again.
“Some remember having attended masses celebrated at the school for dead children,” Kitsabish said.
The Survivors Circle of National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation allowed Radio-Canada to publish the photo, in hopes it might help to identify the girl who died.
Others died from meningitis, tuberculosis
Enquête also uncovered evidence of at least one child who died during a meningitis outbreak at a residential school in La Tuque, Que., and two others who died of illness at residential schools in Mashteuiatsh and Sept-Îles.
Raymond Frogner, director of archives for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said there’s also evidence of possibly dozens of Inuit children who died of tuberculosis after being sent to sanatoriums in southern Quebec.
Frogner said there’s more work to be done to analyze documents and eyewitness accounts from Quebec. He said a lack of bilingual researchers meant the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s portrait of the situation in Quebec was incomplete when the commission ended in 2015.
Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister, Ian Lafrenière, told reporters at the National Assembly Thursday he expected this.
“There will be surprises. To be honest, there’s a lot to discover. This is not over,” Lafrenière said.
“This is the reason why, right after the discovery in Kamloops, I announced the naming a facilitator whose only job is to do the link between the feds, the province and all the communities,” he said.
Frogner said the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation hopes to publish an updated total of the number of deaths at Quebec residential schools soon.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.