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NWT’s chief coroner testifies to Senate on residential school deaths

When it comes to the records of those who attended residential schools, the NWT’s chief coroner says it’s a case of the files being stored in two locations with some overlap.
Garth Eggenberger, the NWT’s chief coroner, testified before the Senate Committee on Indigenous People Wednesday via teleconference. Screenshot courtesy of Senate of Canada

When it comes to the records of those who attended residential schools, the NWT’s chief coroner says it’s a case of the files being stored in two locations with some overlap.

Garth Eggenberger made that remark during his appearance as a witness on Wednesday evening as part of the Standing Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples’ hearing on the subject. Eggenberger testified via videoconference from his office in Yellowknife, along with Dr. Dirk Huyer, chief coroner for Ontario, and Andree Kronstrom from the Quebec coroner’s office.

The committee has been holding a series of public hearings as part of a commitment made this past July in an interim report titled Honouring The Children Who Never Came Home: Truth, Education and Reconciliation.

Prince Edward Island Sen. Brian Francis, the committee’s chair, said the purpose of the hearings is to hear from governments, churches and other groups that continue to withhold records about residential schools and associated sites.

In his opening remarks, Eggenberger said there are two sets of records split up based on timing.

“The NWT coroner records from confederation to 1967 are housed at the Government of Canada Archives in Ottawa,” he said. “The Office of the Chief Coroner of the NWT has not undertaken any research into the records at the archives regarding any coroner reports between 1867 to 1967.”

The reason? Eggenberger said the research needed is beyond the capacity of his office.

When it comes to records from September 1967 and beyond, Eggenberger said the coroner’s office holds those because that’s when the GNWT was moved from Ottawa to Yellowknife.

He added that some of the files between 1954 and 1967 were brought to the NWT and are contained in the territorial archives.

Eggenberger also said in 2013, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) put in a request with the NWT coroner’s office to review all child deaths from zero to 18 years of age between 1955 and 1992 based on the files contained in the territory. He also indicated that a review of files held at the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre for child deaths between 1957 and 1992 also took place at the same time.

“From these two reviews, there were 360 deaths of children identified,” he said. “Of those deaths, five were deemed to be deaths of children attending residential schools or living in a federally-operated school hostel.”

He said those records were sent to the TRC and there has been no communication from the office since then about the matter, but he did mention that this past July, the coroner’s office began comparing names on the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation’s website for each of the residential schools and hostels in the NWT with coroner case files.

“We have identified one additional death of a child attending residential school that should have been added to the spreadsheet submitted to the TRC,” he said.

Eggenberger also indicated that there needs to be collaboration between the NWT coroner’s office and other parties who may have names of persons who attended residential schools in the NWT.

Without that, he said the NWT won’t be able to fulfill TRC Call To Action 71, which relates to missing children and burial information.

During questioning, Francis asked all three witnesses about the length of time it takes for their office to respond to a request from Indigenous people or organizations for information relating to deaths at residential schools or associated sites, along with what leads to delays or denials.

Eggenberger replied that records from 1967 onward could be obtained within a day or two.

“We’ll definitely know right away if we have it or not and then share it with the family,” he said. “It’s more problematic before 1967 because we would have to coordinate with the archives in Ottawa. We haven’t attempted that process, so we don’t know what it entails.”

If the request comes from the family of a deceased person, Eggenberger said both the report and autopsy are shared with next of kin, and that could be extended to cases involving residential schools.

Quebec Sen. Michele Audette asked what could be done when it comes to deaths of those who may have attended residential school in a jurisdiction other than where they were born.

Eggenberger said it would be difficult to fulfill because if someone from the territory receiving treatment outside the NWT dies while in another jurisdiction, it’s always tough trying to get access to records from that jurisdiction.

“That puts a big impediment into what’s happened,” he said. “I haven’t really looked at any files before 1967 because I don’t have access to them, but I suspect the same thing was happening before. I know from 1967 on, we were sending people regularly to Edmonton, Manitoba and Ontario for treatment.”

He stressed that co-operation between jurisdictions is the best way to try and find out what happened.