Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
The organization investigating the missing children and unmarked burials connected to the Blue Quills Indian Residential School in Saddle Lake Cree Nation says the majority of the students died from tuberculosis contracted by drinking unpasteurized raw cow’s milk from livestock kept on site.
The Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS) disclosed the findings of its first preliminary report Tuesday afternoon.
The school was open between 1890 and 1970, first in Lac La Biche, then on Saddle Lake Cree Nation before moving to its St. Paul location. Saddle Lake Cree Nation is located in central Alberta.
The AOS says records from the Catholic church provided information on how many children died, which is now estimated to be nearly 400.
“We have now found out how the majority of these children have died… it was hundreds of children,” AOS executive director Leah Redcrow said.
“People like to accept the fact that these children just died of tuberculosis because First Nations people are natural carriers of tuberculosis. That’s a farce.
“These children died in the hundreds from drinking unpasteurized raw cow’s milk,” she alleged. “They also died of many other fatal milk-borne illnesses.”
Redcrow said the investigation found that the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs didn’t impose safety measures for the milk, nor did the Department of Agriculture complete its mandated livestock testing.
In a statement emailed to Global News on Jan. 27, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said:
“Our thoughts are with those Indigenous children who never returned home, the survivors, families, and communities.
“The findings from the Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS) investigation are another sobering reminder of the horrific abuse that Indigenous children suffered in residential schools, and of the ongoing trauma that impacts Indigenous Peoples today.
“For too long, Indigenous Peoples were ignored when they spoke the truth about Canada’s colonial past, but we are listening now and we believe you. Canada believes you.
“That is why our government will continue supporting Saddle Lake Cree Nation, and other communities across Canada, in locating and commemorating their children, at their own pace and however they see fit.”
In a news release, the AOS said it has “physical and documented evidence of genocide.”
Redcrow said that school staff knew the milk wasn’t good.
“The school administrators knew this… That’s why the children were getting sick and dying and not the school administrators.”
Records show children had to get medical clearance before they were admitted to the school. They were healthy when they arrived, but a month later, they were sick and many died.
“The school had a cream separator,” Redcrow said. “All the cream would get loaded into a rail cart and be shipped off for pasteurization. All the raw skim milk filled with disease was fed to the children.”
The preliminary AOS report also detailed “disclosures from intergenerational survivors, whose parents witnessed homicides in the St Paul site.”
There were reports that a school disciplinarian killed male students by pushing them down the stairs.
The report alleges the man “would then threaten to kill the boys that witnessed if they said anything. The children were then groomed to state the death ‘was an accident’ if probed.”
The disciplinarian allegedly worked at the school from 1935 until 1942 and died in the late 1960s.
These victims do not have recorded burial, the investigative report stated.
For years, community members reported accidentally uncovering unmarked graves and a possible mass grave site at the Sacred Heart Cemetery, which was used by the residential school and is still used as a Catholic cemetery, investigators said.
The report says there have been about 100 instances of unidentified child remains being found in the cemetery.
“These children are not buried in caskets,” Redcrow said. “They’re just little skeletons in the ground, one- to three-feet deep.
“We still bury people here and that’s how we were finding the children.”
The lengthy process to identify, repatriate unmarked grave remains in Kamloops, B.C.
Bringing lost children home: Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation prepares to exhume remains from unmarked graves
Splatsin residential school survivors reflect on anniversary of Kamloops grave discovery
B.C. residential school survivor shares her story for first time
Extended: Kamloops residential school survivor says ceremony has helped her heal
Ground-penetrating radar work will continue next year.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we wanted to let the other investigations nationwide know to check the school records for any documentation on the livestock,” Redcrow said.
Saddle Lake Cree Nation accidentally unearthed partial remains at the site of the former residential school in May 2022.
Last year, and following the announcement that more than 200 potential burial sites were detected at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Saddle Lake Cree Nation formed the AOS to investigate possible burial sites.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
The Hope for Wellness Help Line provides immediate, toll-free telephone and online-chat based emotional support and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This service is available 24/7 in English and French, and upon request in Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut.
Trained counsellors are available by phone at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at hopeforwellness.ca.