Death Without Mercy

They found the bodies on the slush-iced banks of Fraser Lake. Four children, the oldest age nine, the youngest seven. Three were huddled in each other’s arms “capless and lightly clad”, frozen in the final dark embrace of a January night. The fourth child had fallen and died alone 80-feet away.

It was January 2, 1937, with the temperature at 20-below and falling and the children Alan Wilie, 9, Andrew Paul and Justa Maurice 8, and John Michael Jack, 7, were runaways from the Lelac Indian Residential School where they that been arbitrarily confined to be educated by Catholic priests who spoke limited English – and punished students caught conversing in their tribal tongue.

There was a Coroner’s Inquiry into the deaths of the children with newspapers of the day almost triumphantly reporting no blame should be attached to those responsible for the school located some 50 miles west of Prince George and half a dozen from the Nautley Reserve homes of the four runaways.

“Indian School Authorities Absolved in Lake Tragedy” read one; “No blame in boys’ death” echoed another. And the Catholic priest who ran Lelac suggested it was really the failure of parents to discipline their children that led to the deaths of  the Lelac four.

The Coroner’s report tells a different story.

School Principal Father Patrick MacGrath, testifying at the Inquiry convened by local Coroner C. Pitts, MD, set the scene of casual indifference of staff towards students on the day the drama began. He told the Inquiry “I had been away all day on January 1st returning at 5 p.m. but it was not until 9 p.m that I first heard that four boys were missing.”  Four boys aged 7, 8 and 9 missing on an afternoon with temperatures already below zero and falling fast and no one thought to inform the principal for four hours? He testified the runaways were “first reported to Bishop Caudert”, but didn’t clarify what time the Bishop had been alerted or what, if any, action had been taken by him.

He told the Inquiry that he “knew the parents of these boys were at the Nautley Reserve and felt quite sure that they – the runaway boys – had reached the reserve by that time.” Testimony by BC Provincial Police Constable H.J. Jennings placed the dead boys three quarters of a mile short of Nautley reserve when they fell and froze to death. The constable estimated they had been walking for six hours before they collapsed. Cnst. Jennings testified that when found the boys were wearing “underwear, blue denim shirts, overalls, heavy woolen socks, low rubbers. No hats. One boy had lost one rubber and sock. His foot was bare. Three were lying huddled together. The fourth, some 80 feet away, died alone.”

Father MacGrath seemed less aware of distances. He said he was sure the runaways had used the railway track for their sub-zero hike because that was the route usually taken by truants “going home”. He said “I decided to send a car for them the next morning” then added as philosophical aside the most damning condemnation of the school he administered: ”When children run away they are always welcomed home by their parents and not sent back by them.”

Father MacGrath testified it was noon Jan 2 before the school officials got to question mothers and fathers of the Nautley Reserve – and to search several homes to make sure the boys were not being hidden. Yes, you read it correctly, “to search several homes to make sure parent were not hiding their children.”.

At “about four o‘clock I went home,” MacGrath testified, “(then) “at 7 pm I was notified by phone that the bodies of the four boys had been located.” He expressed surprise that the four dead children had fled the school 16-hours earlier so inadequately clothed and blamed them for being unprepared. “They could have obtained more clothing from the playhouse and might have taken clothes without being seen.”

The jury found “more definite action by the school authorities might or should have been taken…..that more cooperation between authorities and parents would lessen the incidence of runaways” and that excessive corporal punishment should be limited. It strongly recommended there would be”better understanding between pupils and disciplinarians if the latter were English speaking.”

Just to make sure everyone knew blame should never be ascribed to him or the church his signed statement ends: “Ninety per cent of our children are present (at the school) against their parents’ wishes and are not disciplined by their parent when they do run away so that it is hard to prevent them.” His conscience was clear. Parents were to blame.

(I first wrote about the four Lelac School children in March 2013. Figured the story worthy of a repeat as we await full publication of Justice Murray Sinclair’s report on Canada’s genocide years. It will be just one among thousands)


  1. I have spent the last several years trying to figure out how the European custodians of the Indian Residential Schools justified their treatment of their charges.

    More recently I have been reading about the genocides of Hitler and Stalin, and they offer insight: you must look upon your victims as subhuman.

    I am persuaded that this was our attitude to the IRS students.

  2. Thank you for this powerful column Jim. I had the honour and privilege of being an instructor/counsellor during the inaugural year of Northern Native Broadcasting in Terrace in 1985/86. We trained sixteen students from fourteen nations…they were brilliant. We began training in September and in January the students went on air. Now NNB is heard throughout northern B.C. and the Territories…both radio and television. One of the first assignments was the students were given tape recorders (it was the 80’s!) to record the stories of their elders. The stories that came back were so chilling and heart breaking that I could listen to only one or two at a time without becoming ill. During the two days of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in Victoria three years ago we heard many more tragic histories from survivors. My fervent hope is that Canadians who were unaware of this great stain on our history will become enlightened through the T & R Report. And yes, Wilf, the residential school children were indeed told they were subhuman.

  3. I have worked with women who survived the residential schools, but were marred for life by their experiences. One of my closest friends’ mother was in a school in the Yukon. She never recovered (she is still alive), but became an alcoholic and abused her children. The damage goes on for generations. My friend has worked hard to not let her childhood affect her own four children, but it hasn’t been easy. Thanks for sharing this again. I was brought up to be proud of being Canadian, but when the truth began to come out, I felt great shame and sorrow. Our country’s roots draw from genocide and cultural ignorance. It’s hard to see the road to healing from where I am now. I hope our government will act on the recommendations of the T&R report, but more likely they will not. At least not the sitting government. The election may change that, though . . . I hope so.

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