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January 1, 2008
OTTAWA — Former students plan to allege criminal deaths took place at Indian residential schools when they appear before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the RCMP has been told to be ready to investigate.
Commission chief Bob Watts said he has met three times with police in the past year to advise them on the accusations former students are preparing to make. His comments mark the first time a senior official has acknowledged allegations deadly crimes were committed at the schools and that many children were buried without their parents being notified.
"We know that in different periods of time there were higher death rates at the schools than other periods of time," Mr. Watts told The Globe and Mail.
"Some of it may be from [tuberculosis], some of it may have been from outbreaks of influenza and other types of sicknesses and some of it may well be things that are more criminal in nature."
As executive director, Mr. Watts is responsible for setting up the commission, which was created as part of a class-action settlement between former students, the churches and Ottawa. Over the past year, he has visited aboriginal communities and is taking part in a closed-door advisory panel with church leaders on the subject of former students who disappeared.
Mr. Watts said he has been told that incidents of children disappearing at the schools were "quite widespread," but that there probably are few, if any, records.
"If a child didn't come back home because of something that was criminal, for example, it's probably not going to be in any records," he said. "We've heard stories about children being so severely punished, for example, that they died. So the commissioners are going to have to sort through how they are going to tackle this."
Mr. Watts said former students will also speak of deaths caused by criminal negligence, such as placing healthy children in dorms with those fighting infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.
Once the names of the commission chair and two co-chairs are announced early this year, the commission will have a five-year mandate to tour the country gathering testimony and documents to compile the official history of Canada's residential schools.
An RCMP spokeswoman confirmed yesterday that police are "working very closely" with Mr. Watts but declined further comment until the commissioners are in place.
Mr. Watts said many of the accused will likely be dead. As a result, native elders are requesting the commission include some form of ceremonial activity to acknowledge any crimes that went unpunished.
Churches started the residential schools as part of European missionary work to spread Christianity.
They received federal funding from about the 1870s to the 1970s. Former students have recently begun to allege abuses that went beyond physical and sexual.
This has been driven in large part by Kevin Annett, a former United Church minister who had an acrimonious split from the church in 1995. Mr. Annett has spent more than a decade chronicling and videotaping former students telling particularly disturbing stories of their time spent at residential schools.
His work is compiled in a film called Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada's Genocide and in an accompanying book.
Mr. Annett argues the actions of Canada, the churches and police fit the United Nations definition of genocide, which defines the term more broadly than mass killings. For instance, the definition includes "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
Several former students have said the RCMP gathered native children from their communities to attend the faraway schools and tracked down students who fled. As a result, Mr. Annett argues that many students grew up fearful of the RCMP.
"The very fact that this is finally being talked about is promising, so I think that's to be welcomed," Mr. Annett said.
"But I think the fact that they're acknowledging there's a criminal element means it's really necessary for there to be an international investigation here, because it's an indication even more so of genocide."
The United Church said on its website, in response to Mr. Annett's film, that it has no knowledge of the allegations of murders, secret burials, medical experimentation and pedophile rings contained in the documentary. It urges any evidence be presented to police.