Runaways and the Residential School System



            Running away was a consistent response to the frequent pattern of abuse within the Residential School system. According to the testimony of one survivor, Joe Kapoeze, his experience at school consisted of watching over the children as they tended to farm work such as milking cows. Kapoeze recalled, "As I got bigger, I got another job and this time I watched over the kids. I used to watch the school children and wasn’t really being teached in school and that’s why I don’t know anything. I was always working and if I’m not doing anything, they would teach us about religious things, so I didn’t really learn anything at all.” Due to this, Joe felt it would be better to run away home where he knew he would learn more and be treated better.

In 1967, Assistant Deputy Minister, R.F. Battle, admitted "It is not uncommon for Indian children to run away." Often, students who ran away did so as a response to physical, sexual, verbal, spiritual, and/or emotional abuse. Children not only ran away in ones and twos but sometimes en masse. On May 7, 1953, "all 32 boys in [a Saskatchewan school] were truant...following disciplinary action." If caught, the students were usually returned to their school, sometimes being held in jail until they were retrieved by a representative of the school. Some of those who were not caught and returned to the school made it to their homes. However, occasionally student runaways resulted in the deaths of children (four student deaths occurred in this manner during the decade of 1957-1967); drowning, freezing, and starvation were just some of the causes of death. Not every missing child or death was recorded by the schools, however, so the true numbers remain obscured due to the lack of documentation.

In 1971, the Department of Indian Affairs attempted to address student runaways with a policy that was supposed to find solutions that school, field staff, and community officials could search for runaways “more effectively.” This new policy included "residence staff to be alert during times of severe weather," "emphasizing the need for discussion of the problems of runaways," and the "implementation of a regular program of survival training for students." The policy focused on steps to take after the students had run away, while failing to address the reasons why students were willing to risk their lives to leave schools in the first place.

(INAC File 772/23-16-010, Vol. 1, 2 May 1953.) (INAC File 487/25-1-014, Vol. 1, 27 August 1963) (INAC File 487/25-1-014, Vol. 1, R.F. Battle to The Acting Minister, 26 January 1967.) (N.A.C. RG 10, Vol. 6186 File 460-23, Part 1, 14 June 1941) (N.A.C. RG 10 Vol. 6332, File 661-1, Part 2, MR C 9810, J. Ostrander to Sir. 19 January 1935) (INAC File 961/25-1, Vol. 1) (INAC File 451/25-2-004, Vol. 2, 9 September 1968) (INAC File 377/25-13, Vol. 1, Verdict of Coroner's Jury, 17 December 1970) (INAC File 377/25-13, Vol. 1, J.B. Bergevin to H.B. Cotnam, M.D., 1 March 1971) (INAC File 487/25-1-014, Vol. 1, R.F. Battle to the Acting Minister, 26 January 1967)

The Truth and Reconciliation Council. "They Came For the Children."  Winnipeg, MB: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012. 52.

Milloy, John S. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School  System, 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1999. 284-287.

Helen and Joe Wheaton. Interview by Murray Dobbin. ”Helen and Joe Wheaton interview on Metis experiences of discrimination, land dispossession and economic activity.” Transcript. Gabriel Dumont Institute Visual Museum Oral Histories Archive. June   17, 1976, ,%20Helen.pd f