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A pathologist's role in Canada's residential school investigations

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Dr. Mary Fernando

Medical expertise will be needed to investigate the over 1,000 unmarked graves at residential schools. 

To understand the complexities entailed, I spoke with Dr. Kona Williams, an Indigenous forensic pathologist in Canada. 

During our interview, Dr. Williams calmly explained complicated medical and legal matters and, somewhere in the middle of our interview, she said, “I was not meant to be here.”

Taken aback by such a profoundly personal and poignant statement, I asked what she meant and she replied, “I am a doctor, a forensic pathologist and I know my history. If the residential schools were successful, this wouldn’t have happened. They wanted to erase an entire people. I’m here because of those who came before me.”

So, before we can even talk about medicine and residential schools, we need to look at that statement because it lies at the heart of residential schools and the unmarked graves of children. 

Sir John Alexander MacDonald became the first Prime Minister of Canada in 1867. In 1879 he spoke about Indigenous children in the House of Commons. “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”

In 1883, MacDonald created residential schools. By 1907, Dr. P.H. Bryce, chief medical officer for Canada’s Department of the Interior and Indian Affairs, “reveals that Indigenous children are dying at alarming rates. Bryce suggested the mortality rate could be as high as 42%.” Dr. Bryce was outraged enough by this to write The Story of a National Crime in 1922.

However, Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (1913-1932) wanted to get rid of the ‘Indian problem’ and was far more sanguine about the deaths stating, “It is quite within the mark to say that 50% of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein." 

When Dr. Williams says that she was not meant to be here, she is simply stating a fact. Indigenous people who know their history were meant to be eradicated and high death rates of children at residential schools were well known.

Presently, over 1,000 unmarked graves have been found at residential schools and we know that number will increase substantially. In response to the growing calls for an investigation, the federal government has signalled that it is open to such a process being led by Indigenous communities.

Dr. Williams echoes this sentiment. “I’m happy to provide the medical expertise but I’m not going to provide it without the permission of the people involved.” 

“We know that there are stories of children being injured and who died from these injuries, as well as children who died from malnutrition or not receiving medical care.”

“The investigation is . . . complicated if we only have bones. If they died of pneumonia, bones aren’t a lot to go on. If it’s malnutrition or blunt trauma, that’s easier. 

“Generally, we have records that we compare to the body, for example, dental records. Here we only have bones, so we could get DNA, but we would have to go to the community and ask if they would provide DNA samples to compare. . . . The ethics around this are huge. How do we ensure that the information is kept securely and not used for anything else?” 

“It’s going to be hard for families and communities to decide what to do. Some will want to let them rest, some will want it investigated.”

Exhuming bodies, if only some families and communities do want an investigation and others don’t, is problematic. It’s impossible to identify a specific child before extracting DNA and comparing it—and if some communities want the bodies to be left, it may be one of the children from those communities. 

To add to the problem of getting consensus among Indigenous communities is a large and complicated legal problem. 

“We know that some of these graves may be older than 50 years so we don’t have the legislation for those over 50 years on how to deal with these deaths.” 

Deaths over 50 years ago are considered not ‘forensically relevant’ in Ontario because prosecuting deaths over 50 years ago is—in most circumstances—unlikely to yield convictions. 

“There is something I’ve been chewing on. There is a ‘death in custody’ if the person is being held against their will, there may be some responsibility on the part of the people whose care they’re in . . . legally this is an interesting question,” Dr. Williams said. “The custodians and institutions can be held responsible. . . . Can this be put under ‘death in custody?’”

I asked, would this allow these people to be charged past the 50 years?

“Potentially,” she said. “The legislation doesn’t exist—it might still be limited by ‘forensically relevant.’”

Further complicating the matter is the inability, at this stage, to estimate the cost of this investigation.

“People have been asking about the cost. How can we put a price on this? We don’t know how many children there are, and we don’t know the cost,” said Dr. Williams. “When people ask how much is this going to cost to dig up these kids, I ask, ‘I don’t know, how much would it cost to dig up yours if they were your kids? Would you not want everything done? Would you not want to know what happened and would you not want someone to pay for this?’ The last school closed in 1996. It’s not ancient history.” 

“We don’t know how many sites, we can’t estimate the cost. It puts the cart before the horse. The human toll on the First Nations population is the cost.” 

Dr. Williams explained that families, not just Indigenous families, but all Canadians families, are thinking about what it would be like if their children were forcibly taken away and put in residential schools, to end up in an unmarked grave. 

In an otherwise complicated situation, it’s crystal clear that these graves must be located and dealt with because, as Dr. Williams states, “The fire is on and we have to figure this out.” 

Dr. Mary Fernando is a physician in Ottawa.

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