Sunday, December 2, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inquiry Asked Into Deaths At Live-In School For Indians

Toronto Globe And Mail

NORTH BATTLEFORD, Saskatchewan - Of 630 children who attended a church-run residential school for Indians between 1903 and 1948, 45 did not survive.

The enrollment register of

L'ecole St. Henri, also known as Thunderchild Boarding School, reads like a handwritten obituary passed from one Oblate headmaster to the next, over a period of 45 years.

It summarizes with exquisite finality the fate of more than

7 percent of the school's Indian pupils, aged 8 to 19, who died between 1903 and 1948 while enrolled there.

The simple word ``morte'' (dead) follows the names and numbers of 31 girls, and the word ``mort'' (dead) the names and numbers of 14 boys.

Some native leaders are calling for a national inquiry into conditions at about 60 residential schools where aboriginal children were sent until the 1950s and 1960s. Operated by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, the schools were compulsory from 1920 onward.

Thunderchild, in Delmas, Saskatchewan, operated by Oblate priests and Sisters of the Assumption, was eventually torched by four desperate young male students on Jan. 13, 1948.

Now only the old barn and shed remain on the wheat field where stood the massive three-story landmark at Delmas, 90 minutes northwest of Saskatoon.

This fall, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assigned an investigator to look into allegations by former pupils that a 12-year-old boy was beaten to death by authorities at the Thunderchild school 63 years ago. He concluded that Robert Lonesinger died of pneumonia.

But that hasn't stopped the talk of whippings and psychological abuse that circulates on the dozen reserves near the site of the school.

Jack Funk, 63, a former Canadian Department of Indian Affairs superintendent of education in Saskatchewan, says there may not be a more disturbing story anywhere in Canada of the dominant society's attempt to crush aboriginal culture.

Thunderchild school ``was probably the best example of Indian education at its worst,'' he said in an interview.

But many people today find it hard to believe accounts of alleged abuse at this and other Indian residential schools so many years ago. For example, the Rev. Henri Delmas, the Oblate priest who founded L'cole St. Henri, also known as the Thunderchild Boarding School, was so popular among non-natives that the local French-speaking settlers named their hamlet after him.

Disease, no doubt, made life a precarious thing for many children on the Canadian Prairies in the first half of this century, Funk said. But mortality rates at the mandatory aboriginal boarding schools were five times those at non-native schools, he said, adding that hundreds of Indian children died in such schools in Saskatchewan alone.

Many years were deadly for the Indian children at L'ecole St. Henri. Of the 1928 class of about 40 students at Thunderchild, six children died. Four died in 1921. Ten percent of the class of 1908 died. Seven percent of the class of '31 died.

It is believed nearly all succumbed to tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough or other predatory illnesses.

Yet there were others, former students allege, who died of broken hearts and broken bodies at the hands of sadists.

Some who died, such as Patrick Tootoosis, Charlie Tobaccojuice, Joseph Bigear, Emma Northwind and Alice Lonesinger - were taken home from Thunderchild school to graveyards at the nearby reserves.

Others are buried in a shared grave on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River not far from the school. The bones of still others have surprised contractors excavating new basements in the village of Delmas.

But of all the deaths at Thunderchild, the one that has commanded most scrutiny is that of Robert Lonesinger. He was buried on the Sweetgrass reserve on May 3, 1927, the day after he died.

Robert, whom former schoolmates recall as a big, strapping boy, attended the Thunderchild school from the age of 6. Some say he fell off a swing, others that he was savagely beaten to death by unnamed authorities at the school. This version is denied by police and church officials.

There was no autopsy. After gathering conflicting information from witnesses in recent months, RCMP say they have no evidence that Robert was murdered.

``The cause of death was pneumonia,'' Sgt. Del Cousins said. He said he found more than 30 of the boy's former classmates alive. He said he interviewed several who gave firsthand accounts.

But it is hearsay which persists. Irene Fineday, who lives on the Sweetgrass reserve, is one of several people who remember hearing Robert's classmate, Solomon Pooyak, describe in detail how his 12-year-old consumptive friend was whipped across the back and buttocks with a thick leather strap a couple of days before he died.

Pooyak died last year, but Fineday vividly recalls his account: ``Robert Lonesinger, he said something in Cree to the sister,'' said Fineday. ``She took it for granted that he swore at her, but that was not the case. They took him to the father (priest), who ordered 100 lashes for that boy.

``They weren't even halfway through the 100 lashes when he passed out. They finished the 100 lashes and then took him upstairs to bed. The next thing the boys knew, they took him to that little hospital in Battleford. A few days after, they were told he died.''

Joseph Chicken, 72, who was a classmate of Robert Lonesinger, remembers Robert and others occasionally receiving as many as 100 lashes.

``I know he had a lot of whippings, most of the time for no reason at all,'' said Chicken.

He added that he must have been in another part of the school the day Robert is said to have been whipped, at the end of April 1927. ``I was talking to him and he had chest pains, and the next thing I heard he was dead,'' Chicken said.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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