WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
A new report suggests tainted, unpasteurized milk was responsible for the deaths of many First Nations children at an Alberta residential school.
The conclusion comes from a preliminary report released Tuesday by the Acimowin Opaspiw Society. The Saddle Lake Cree Nation formed the group in 2021 to investigate unmarked burial sites of the Blue Quills residential school in central Alberta.
The organization has been gathering testimony and sifting through documents provided by the Catholic Church to produce the report with some of its early findings.
“It appears as though people like to accept the fact that these children just died of tuberculosis because First Nations people are natural carriers of tuberculosis and that is a farce,” Leah Redcrow, executive director for the society, said at a news conference held at the Sacred Heart cemetery grounds in Saddle Lake.
The report links the consumption of unpasteurized milk to rampant disease among the children, citing diet as a differentiating factor between them and staff administrators.
Redcrow said children who entered the school healthy were ill within a month and, in many cases, soon died.
“We feel that these children were being deliberately infected with tuberculosis,” she said, adding that other residential school investigations should examine livestock records.
Roman Catholic missionaries established the school at Lac La Biche, Alta., in 1891. The buildings were moved to the Saddle Lake First Nation in 1898 and were renamed Blue Quills.
The school was relocated in 1931 to a spot near St. Paul, Alta., approximately 150 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
Pasteurization and testing
Keith Warriner, a professor of food safety at the University of Guelph, said it wasn’t until around the early decades of the 20th century that people accepted and associated raw milk with tuberculosis.
“It was a hard sell,” he said Tuesday.
Pasteurization is the process wherein certain foods are quickly heated to kill bacteria. It took some time to catch on, however, as it was sometimes viewed as unnatural. Warriner said by the 1940s the provinces were being pressured to legislate the practice. Federally, the process would only become mandated in 1991.
“Basically, pasteurization was only one sort of element to the control of tuberculosis,” he said.
“[Another] element to it … was our ability to look at sick animals and say, ‘I don’t think you should drink the milk from that animal.'”
The report says Blue Quills had its own milking cows, purchased by the Department of Indian Affairs, that were not tested for bovine tuberculosis or other diseases regularly, if at all.
Mountains of records
The work includes combing through hundreds of pages of journals written in French kept by church administrators.
“We have mountains and mountains of records to go through,” Redcrow said.
An excerpt from a reverend in 1903 describes the prevalence of disease and its fatal consequences.
The investigative team has previously said it believes there are even more children missing than the 212 who have been accounted for in church records.
In 2004, the community discovered what it believes to be a mass grave. The report says ground-penetrating radar was used at the site at the Sacred Heart cemetery grounds in October last year and confirmed that belief.
“They’re not ground anomalies, these were people,” Redcrow said. “These were people’s family members.”
The group says volunteers digging new graves for the recently-deceased came across the unprotected skeletal remains of child’s remains over the years at a shallow depth. The investigation intends to uncover more information, as burying children without caskets was not a norm or an accepted practice
Redcrow said there are plans to excavate as the investigation progresses.
The organization also intends to follow through on finding two other mass graves on the grounds that have been described in survivor stories.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.