When the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) released its student memorial registry of children who died in residential schools in 2019, those behind it acknowledged it was far from complete.
Among the 2,800 names registered at that time, at least one arched eyebrows. One entry wasn’t even really a name: “Indian Girl 237.”
After reviewing hundreds of annual reports, correspondence and death certificates from boarding schools and records provided by the White Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, we now know that her name was Letitia John.
“We come from a place that has a lot of history and in order to move forward we need to address some of that,” said former White Bear First Nation Chief Annette Lonechild.
“It is logical that we have this privilege thanks to the research of others, to close someone’s path.”
Raymond Frogner, NCTR chief archives, said both the online memorial record and the red cloth banner displaying the names of children who died in Canada’s residential schools are “living documents.”
“We always expected this to happen; if there are errors, we are very clear that we will eliminate them and make it as accurate as possible,” Frogner said.
“In terms of the banner itself, it will have to be redone and reworked over time, but again, these are living documents. Over time, as our knowledge increases, investigations continue and we understand who was lost and the circumstances of loss, we will continue to contribute to that.
Frogner said that “Indian girl” and “No. 237 of White Bear’s Band” were the only details found in correspondence between school and government officials marking Letitia’s death, which is why Letitia was listed as a number in register.
He said the NCTR is still analyzing documents to review the list of children who died in the institutions.
Archivists at the national center used algorithms to find names of people associated with residential schools in documents preserved in their archives. The list was scrubbed to remove duplicates and names of people believed to be staff. What remains, however, is a long list of names “less than a million,” but “over six figures,” says Frogner, that need to be thoroughly investigated.
Letitia John was born in 1897 or 1898 and would have been approximately five or six years old when she was taken from her parents and enrolled at the Qu’Appelle Industrial School in Lebret, Sask., about 70 kilometers east of Regina, in 1903. .
Her family would not have had a say in transferring their daughter to the institute, thanks to the clauses of the Indigenous Law that make attendance mandatory.
Nine years later, a teenage Letitia would die of tuberculosis at the school where she spent most of her short life, just over 150 kilometers from her home in White Bear.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report What we have learned He described tuberculosis, responsible for almost half of the deaths recorded in Canadian boarding schools, as a crisis.
Several federal officials reported in the early 20th century that poor construction and “grossly inadequate” ventilation in residential schools were among the factors contributing to high rates of the deadly infectious disease, the report states.
“Lack of funding…ensured that students were poorly fed, clothed and housed. As a result, children were highly susceptible to tuberculosis,” the report states.
The 1912 report of Qu’Appelle Director Rev. J. Hugonard for Indian Affairs omitted Letitia’s death and others that may have occurred that year.
“The health of the students this year has been good. Health precautions are always taken, the facilities are kept clean, contagious diseases are isolated and ventilation is taken care of.” the school’s summary report says.
White Bear First Nation examined treaty annuity records, maintained by Indian agents as a method of tracking families on reserves, to help confirm Letitia’s name.
Community records show that tract number 237 belonged to a man named John, recorded in what was then called White Bear’s Band.
The records were linked specifically to men in the early days of Indian agent record-keeping, although they also documented other members of their family.
Correspondence and records kept by Indian agents showed that John and a man named Shewak transferred from the Pheasant Rump Nakota Nation at the same time and became members of White Bear’s Band in 1894.
John raised five head of cattle and built a home in White Bear before his move was finalized.
When asked about John’s connections to Pheasant Rump, about 155 kilometers southeast of Regina, Chief Ira McArthur said his community may have long since disappeared.
“I asked several Pheasant Rump elders,” he said.
“Much of that history, of course, is lost over generations. It’s really difficult to try to identify people who are about two or three generations older than [the elders in our community]. In John’s case, I know there is a possibility that he came from somewhere else.”
McArthur said that before signing Treaty 4 and until about 1890, their community was transient between what is now southeastern Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana, mixing with other tribes and communities along the way.
Under the rules of the Indian Act, John’s children would be under his treaty number until his sons came of age or his daughters married into a new family.
In 1898, White Bear records indicate that “a girl, Letitia, was born,” along with John’s treaty number 237, making her the fifth member of the family.
In 1903, White Bear’s annuity payment records showed that Letitia was enrolled at the Qu’Appelle Industrial School, where her siblings were already being taken, as “student 0235.”
A death certificate shows that “pupil 0235” of the Qu’Appelle Industrial School, who was tied to treaty annuity payment number 237 in White Bear’s Band, died of tuberculosis on February 17, 1912.
In 1912, the White Bear Indian Agent’s records simply indicated “two dead girls” in John’s family, the family linked to treaty number 237.
Additional correspondence between school and government officials regarding the February 17, 1912, death revealed Letitia’s name and showed that she was linked to treaty number 237 in White Bear’s Band.
There is no further information in the records about whether Letitia’s remains were returned to White Bear or whether she was buried at the school site or in Lebret, or whether her family was informed of the cause of her death.
What’s in a name?
Even when she lost her life at the institution, the school administration, in its correspondence, stripped Leticia of her birth name.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that schools were removing students’ names for administrative and reporting purposes.
Lorena Fontaine, Indigenous academic director at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, said removing children’s names was a government policy imposed by priests, nuns and boarding school teachers.
That policy, he said, caused confusion then and now about the identities of children like Letitia.
“When children died in schools without their original name, it is difficult to know what happened to those children,” he said.
“Imagine parents putting their children in school under the care and guidance of the government and churches, and those children not coming home and not knowing their history. It’s horrible.”
Breaking: first shared news about Letitia’s identity and her White Bear ties to former Chief Lonechild on what was the eve of the community’s first Day of Truth and Reconciliation gathering in 2021.
Lonechild said she and the band’s legal representation would try to find descendants of the family, but said they were unable to locate any living relatives.
But Lonechild said he didn’t doubt the people of White Bear remembered Letitia.
“I believe in families and knowing their people and knowing who they’ve left behind,” he said.
“Externally, the systems, the records might say something different. But I believe in our people… so I really don’t think anyone has been forgotten.”