SADDLE LAKE - A Saddle Lake group researching and documenting “missing children in unmarked burials” has released a preliminary report into its investigation specific to the Blue Quills residential school that operated initially on Saddle Lake reserve lands and later on land located just outside of St. Paul.
The report drew a lot of media attention across the country last week when it was revealed tainted, unpasteurized milk is being cited as the cause of death of many children who died while attending the school.
Leah Redcrow is the research lead and executive director of the Acimowin Opaspiw Society, which is conducting the formal inquiry into the children who died and or went missing from the school and are believed to be buried in unmarked graves at locations where the institution operated.
While there is much work yet to be done, Redcrow said last week’s release of the preliminary report was important to provide survivors and families with what has been learned so far. Much of what has been gleaned comes directly from records provided to the group by the Diocese of St. Paul.
“Through our partnerships with the Catholic Church and through our current research, we’ve discovered that the children that died here, and they died in large amounts, they died due to drinking unpasteurized raw cow's milk,” Redcrow told Lakeland This Week Thursday.
The cows were supplied to the school by the Department of Indian Affairs, according to the report. The Department of Agriculture was not routinely testing the cattle for tuberculosis or other diseases, and the school administrators were feeding the children raw cow’s milk. There was no pasteurization equipment purchased for the school. One excerpt in the report states a principal in 1942 requested a herd TB test be postponed.
Redcrow said the national Truth and Reconciliation report clearly indicates that where cause of death among Indigenous children was identified, tuberculosis was a leading reason. She said researchers are now tasked with taking that investigation further as First Nations across the country undertake work of their own to investigate residential schools and their missing children.
“In our case the children were getting tuberculosis and scrofula from unpasteurized cows’ milk. That was confirmed by a letter from a doctor that these children were going in healthy and one month later they would be diagnosed with tuberculosis and scrofula . . . When you drink unpasteurized cow’s milk from a cow that has bovine tuberculosis, they will get tuberculosis and scrofula at the same time and that was what was happening in the Blue Quills residential school,” she believes.
The 44-page document details information from the Sacred Heart Parish records, among others, that has proven to be invaluable to the investigation, Redcrow said. Sacred Heart was the parish for the Blue Quills Residential School when it operated on Chief Blue Quills Reserve, now Saddle Lake, from 1898 and also when the school was moved to a location near St. Paul in 1931.
“Just being afforded access to those records was paramount to our work. It seems like every time I try to recognize them and acknowledge them, the media just cuts them out and I don’t like it. I feel like that’s very unfair because they were very much a big part of what we are doing and are helping us,” Redcrow said. “Without them we wouldn’t know the majority of the information that we have.”
She believes those researchers involved with similar investigations into residential schools across the country need to tap into parish church records in the areas the schools were operating. The life events of people – birth, baptism, marriage, burial - including the births and deaths of children attending residential schools are recorded in the parish records not the school records, she maintained.
“Churches are the only people that would have the appropriate documentation to help these investigations. People seem to like to just sit there and want to blame and if you’re really in that kind of mindset, I really feel they shouldn’t be involved in this work. You have to understand that the people responsible are dead.”
Working with the institutions today and gaining access to the records they have to learn about what happened is crucial in the reconciliation process, Redcrow said.
“The people that are alive today that work in whatever institution they are in, they shouldn’t be to blame personally for things that were done likely before they were even born. That’s the part about reconciliation – people need to understand that it’s truth – the truth is hard to take but that is the only way to go about healing from these traumas is talking about it.”
The work of the society is far from over as it continues its investigation to locate and identify Blue Quills Residential School students who died or went missing during the school’s operation. Setting differences aside and working for the common goal of identifying the missing children, letting their families know where they are, must be the focus, according to Redcrow.
The society does plan to excavate a mass grave at the Sacred Heart cemetery grounds at Saddle Lake.
“We feel there are missing children in the mass grave that are not accounted for in any of the burial and sacramental registers and vital statistics records. They essentially just disappeared off the face of the earth,” Redcrow said.
“Catholic cemeteries should not just have little skeletons in the ground . . . A Catholic cemetery is supposed to be a holy place and we are finding some very, very unholy practices that the former Oblates of Mary Immaculate left in our community.”