“In fact, a private researcher has found B.C. death records for 225 of the 416 who supposedly 'died at schools' ”
Is the NCTR Memorial Register Reliable?
By Tom Flanagan and James C. McCrae
SPECIAL TO THE DORCHESTER REVIEW
THE NATIONAL CENTRE for Truth and Reconciliation Memorial Register lists the names of 2800 children under the heading “Remembering the Children Who Never Returned Home.” In 2019 their names were exhibited at the Canadian Museum of History with the implication that they represented 2800 missing children who were taken to Indian residential schools and never returned home:
Participants of the emotional ceremony organized by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation carried a 50-metre long red blood-red banner emblazoned with the names of Indigenous who were stolen from their families and communities, placed in these schools never to be seen again.
The list includes the name of Helen Betty Osborne, the 19-year-old victim of a despicable murder in 1971 near The Pas.
Betty, as she was known, had earlier attended the Guy Hill Indian Residential School, but at the time of her death was attending Margaret Barbour Collegiate and living in The Pas with a non-Indigenous family.
Since Betty Osborne was not attending an Indian residential school when she died, the inclusion of her name contradicts the claim that the Memorial Register is a reliable record of “Children Who Never Returned Home” from residential schools.
These facts moved one concerned Canadian to ask the NCTR why Betty Osborne’s name is included in the Memorial Register.
After more than three months had gone by, the NCTR senior archivist sent this reply:
The Memorial Register is the result of over a decade of work by countless people and honours the children lost to the residential schools. Many names are added at the request of family members of children they lost who attended residential school. It may be the wish of these families to memorialize their lost children among the names of their schoolmates. This memorial registry is one meant to help Survivors (whose friends were lost) and families (whose children were lost) honour their loss and find peace to move forward. Again this register is meant to memorialize and honour the loss that families felt and continue to feel due to the residential school system.
As we are continuing our efforts on residential school research and helping Survivors and their families to heal, we will not be replying to further questions on the registry.
This official statement by the NCTR that the purpose of the Memorial Register is “to memorialize and honour the loss that families felt and continue to feel due to the residential school system” raises serious concerns. It indicates that the Memorial Register is not a verified list of 2800 missing children, or a verified list of children who “never came home.” It also suggests that the list will continue to grow far into the future as further unverified names are added by family members. If the principle continues to be applied that the Memorial Register is merely a way for family members, no matter how distantly related, to memorialize the name of a child who at some time went to a residential school, it is not inconceivable that the number of names on the Memorial Register could eventually reach the 15-25,000 estimated by TRC Commissioner Murray Sinclair:
[B]ased upon the research that we did at the TRC, we had names of 3200 children who died in schools. But we know that the number is much larger than that. Could be in the 15-25 thousand range and maybe even more. . . . 
Despite Murray Sinclair’s claim, it is well known to the NCTR that a great many of the 2800 names on the Memorial Register do not represent “children who died in schools.” BC death certificates which have been in the NCTR’s possession since 2014, for example, record that a child named on the NCTR Memorial Register died when hit by a CPR train on his home reserve during the summer holidays, that another child died in a house fire on her home reserve, that yet another died after being hit by a falling tree on his home reserve, and that another drowned miles off the West Coast during the summer holidays. These four children cannot in any realistic sense be referred to as “children who died in schools,” nor can it be claimed that they are “missing” or that they “never returned home,” since according to their BC death certificates they were buried on their home reserves.
In fact, a private researcher has found BC death records for 225 of the 416 children on the NCTR’s lists for “children who died at schools” in BC, which establish that most did not die at residential schools at all, and most are buried on their home reserves. In some cases the death certificates are signed by parents. The researcher has provided this information to the NCTR – which, as noted, was already aware of it since it has had the relevant BC death records in its possession since 2014. But requests that the NCTR remove from the Memorial Register the names of two hundred children whose deaths were not related to their attendance at residential schools have been met with silence.
The NCTR also declines to make accessible to non-Indigenous researchers the millions of documents it has received from governments and churches, which is particularly troubling since the NCTR is largely funded by the federal government with taxpayers’ money and is currently asking for a $60 million building to house its work. In that context, the senior archivist’s statement that the Centre refuses to reply to further questions is quite problematic. It suggests that the NCTR will continue to mislead the Canadian public by implying that the names in its Memorial Register are verified deaths which took place at residential schools, and that it will continue to place obstacles in the way of non-Indigenous researchers who are merely trying to establish the true number of residential school deaths.
The NCTR archivist referred in his response to the NCTR’s aim of promoting healing, but how can improperly recorded information about the deaths of children be helpful in the healing process? It would be comforting to many Indigenous families and communities, as well as to all Canadians, if the NCTR would be more forthcoming with the truth. If the Memorial Register is not a record of verifiable deaths at residential schools but is instead a means by which family members can memorialize a child who at some time attended a residential school, the NCTR should say so in unequivocal terms on its website.
If the NCTR promotes a darker view of Canadian history than the facts justify, how can anyone expect progress toward the healing needed by Indigenous people and by all Canadians?
James C. McCrae is a former attorney general of Manitoba and Canadian citizenship judge.
Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary.SPECIAL TO THE DORCHESTER REVIEW