The heartbreaking legacy of Quebec’s missing Innu children

‘Some parents were never told their children died, some never knew what became of their kids’
Photo: Nicolas Nova

This article discusses residential schools and sanatoriums and may be triggering to some readers. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society operates a 24-hour crisis line for survivors and their families at 1-866-925-4419.

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What became of our missing children?

That question remains unresolved in the Innu communities of Quebec’s Côte-Nord region, where some kids never returned from residential school in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

But schools are just one piece of the puzzle. Children from the Innu villages were also taken by the clergy and sent to sanatoriums for tuberculosis treatment in the 1950s, only to die far away from home.

“Lots of families still don’t know where those children are buried,” said Jean-Claude Therrien Pinette, who grew up in the Innu territory of Uashat. “Our collective memory of the residential school experience is still fresh and we have Elders who were there when it happened. We’re pretty sure all of the children who died in residential school were eventually returned to their mothers. “But the kids who died in sanatoriums, that’s another story. Some parents were never told their children died, some never knew what became of their kids when they did die. There’s a lot of digging we have to do.”

“People were treated as inferior, their humanity was ignored.”

Like so many of his colleagues across the country, Therrien Pinette — the chief of staff for Uashat Chief Mike McKenzie — has been on a fact-finding mission to get answers from the church, the province and Ottawa about the ongoing legacy of Canada’s residential school system.

Their search dates back years but has recently intensified with the discovery, last week, of the remains of 215 children outside Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated from 1873 to 1978. The discovery sent shockwaves across the Canadian political landscape, triggering a backlash unlike anything seen since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its scathing report six years ago.

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There have been dozens of protests, impromptu memorials and even a moment of silence observed before Game 7 of the Toronto Maple Leafs–Montreal Canadiens playoff series on Monday.

But while the thought of so many children dying far away from home may be shocking to Canadians, it’s been common knowledge in First Nations for years.

“It’s information that gets passed down from one generation to the next because it really wasn’t that long ago,” said Richard Budgell, an Inuit professor at McGill University’s Department of Family Medicine. “What was found in Kamloops just confirms what so many already knew. And in the case of Innu and Inuit communities, it wasn’t just residential schools, it was treatment facilities for tuberculosis as well.

“In some cases, children were sent thousands of kilometres away and their parents never knew what happened to them. Children died as a result of their tuberculosis and their families may not have been told what happened, where the child’s remains were interred, and it left this gaping hole in their hearts.

Eleven residential schools operated in Quebec, mostly between the 1950s and 1970s.

“You had parents who, until the day they died, would ask themselves, ‘Where is my child?’ It’s not exactly the same as residential schools but you can see the pattern. People were treated as inferior, their humanity was ignored.”

Therrien Pinette says members of the nine Innu communities in Quebec are meeting to decide what they’ll do next. The provincial and federal governments have offered to assist any First Nation that wants to probe residential school grounds for the remains of missing children.

A representative of the Atikamekw Nation in Quebec said the community is consulting with survivors to determine whether they want to see investigations of the residential school in La Tuque and some of the other facilities that children were sent to. Eleven residential schools operated in Quebec, mostly between the 1950s and 1970s.

In Kamloops, “the sheer number is gripping and gut-wrenching,” Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said in a message to Ricochet. “And it’s the tip of the iceberg. This is immensely triggering for Indigenous people across Canada. Thirty-two communities, as far as I can tell, had kids there.

“We will be there for them.”

An estimated 6,000 children died while attending church-run residential schools across Canada between the 1870s and late 1990s. But since the remains of just 4,100 of them have been unearthed, there will almost certainly be more discoveries like the one in Kamloops.

“You never heard so many little boys crying out for their mothers at night.”

In 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked the Conservative government to fund a series of projects that would identify burial sites at residential schools across Canada. The request was denied.

Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the federal government fought to keep millions of church documents from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Harper Conservatives also used legal technicalities to exclude some schools from a federal settlement that awarded millions to survivors and their families.

Many of these obstructionist practices continue under the Trudeau Liberals.

The New Democratic Party introduced a motion in Parliament Thursday that would end the government’s legal battle against the survivors of St. Anne’s School, which is not formally recognized as a residential school.

It also called on Ottawa to accelerate the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, specifically funding further investigations into missing Indigenous children.

Out of respect for the survivors and their families, I haven’t asked any to comment on this story. But I’ve been to Côte Nord and spoken to survivors there about their time as wards of the state. They describe acts of violence so frequent they became part of their daily routine. Priests beating them with a closed fist, locking them in closets and burning them as punishment for speaking the Innu language. Sexual assault was another common form of torture.

The children, some as young as four years old, lived in cramped dormitories where they contracted tuberculosis. Some died.

“You never heard so many little boys crying out for their mothers at night,” one survivor told me, when we spoke in 2015. “I can still hear it when I close my eyes and lie in the dark.”

One survivor spoke of losing a brother at residential school. But since they were sent to separate facilities it took months for him to find out. He said he still dreams of his brother most nights. Many spent their formative adult years in jail cells. Some took their lives.

“I learned that when you’re abused, you become an abuser,” another survivor told me, during the 2015 trip. “I did a lot of bad things. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let go, to forgive myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever be whole again.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.
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