The largest single killer, by far, was disease.
For decades starting in about 1910, tuberculosis was a consistent killer – in part because of widespread ignorance over how diseases were spread.
“The schools were a particular breeding ground for (TB),” Maass said. “Dormitories were incubation wards.”
While a statistical analysis has yet to be done, the records examined over the past few years also show children also died of malnutrition or accidents. Schools consistently burned down, killing students and staff. Drownings or exposure were another cause.
In all, about 150,000 first nations children went through the church-run residential school system, which ran from the 1870s until the 1990s. In many cases, native kids were forced to attend under a deliberate federal policy of “civilizing” Aboriginal Peoples.
Many students were physically, mentally and sexually abused. Some committed suicide. Some died fleeing their schools.
The records reveal the number of deaths only fell off dramatically after the 1950s, although some fatalities occurred into the 1970s.
“The question I ask myself is: Would I send my child to a private school where there were even a couple of deaths the previous year without looking at it a little bit more closely?” Maass said.
“One wouldn’t expect any death rates in private residential schools.”
In fact, Maass said, student deaths were so much part of the system, architectural plans for many schools included cemeteries that were laid out in advance of the building.
Maass, who has a background in archeology, said researchers had identified 50 burial sites as part of the project.
The annual death reports were consistently done until 1917, when they abruptly stopped.
“It was obviously a policy not to report them,” Maass said.