One reason this social panic unfolded as it did is that Canadians had already been led to believe that there was some enormous number of Indigenous children who’d simply vanished—“missing children” whose tragic fates had now been discovered. That claim, too, was always untrue.
This concept was popularized by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose officials spoke of up to 4,200 Indigenous children who were sent to Residential Schools but never returned to their parents. It is absolutely true that children died at Residential Schools of diseases such as tuberculosis, just as they did in their home communities. And the fate of some children may have been forgotten by their own distant relatives with the passage of generations. But “forgotten” is not “missing.” The myth of missing students arose from a failure of TRC researchers to cross-reference the vast number of historical documents about Residential Schools and the children who attended them. The documentation exists, but the TRC did not avail themselves of it.
Amid the moral panic that began in mid-2021, the “unmarked graves” were presumed to be populated by these “missing children.” Lurid tales of torture and murder, of babies thrown into furnaces and hanging from meat hooks, became popularized. Yet Indigenous parents, no less than other parents, love their children and certainly would have noticed if they went away to school and never came back. There is no record of parents filing complaints with police or other authorities about children who simply vanished—even though there are documented parents’ complaints about harsh discipline (documented complaints that, it should be added, were addressed by school authorities in favour of the parents’ concerns).
Notwithstanding larger debates about the assimilationist mission of these schools, and episodes of abuse, their operation was governed by bureaucratic protocols. As in schools all over the world, each child received an identifying file number upon admission, which was used for administrative purposes.
The federal Department of Indian Affairs also kept close track of students because it paid a per-capita subsidy to Residential Schools. It reviewed admission records meticulously because it didn’t want to pay for the non-Indigenous students who were sometimes enrolled in such schools. For their own part, the Residential Schools were equally motivated to keep track of students because their income depended on such subsidies.
Media stories about Indian Residential Schools are often accompanied by the claim that 150,000 Indigenous children were “forced to attend” such institutions. In fact, scholars generally agree that more students attended day schools located on Indigenous reserves than went away to board at Residential Schools. Children were not required to go to Residential School unless no day school was available. Moreover, a large number didn’t go to any school at all. And it wasn’t until 1920, decades after the Residential School system had been established, that attendance at either day school or Residential School was made compulsory for Indigenous children. And even then, enforcement was often lax. Even by 1944, estimates indicate, upwards of 40% of Indigenous children were not enrolled in any school whatsoever.
For each student who did attend Residential School, an application form signed by a parent or other guardian was required. Numerous specimens have been preserved and can be viewed in online government archives. Moreover, many Indigenous parents saw Residential Schools as the best option available for their children. Cree artist Kent Monkman’s famous painting, The Scream, showing missionaries and police snatching infants from the arms of Indian mothers at gunpoint is a fever dream of the modern Canadian imagination. It’s not even close to an accurate depiction of historical reality, even if taken metaphorically.