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Letitia John died at a residential school. Her identity was lost until now

When the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) unveiled its student memorial register in 2019 of children who died in residential schools, those behind it acknowledged it was far from complete.

Among the 2,800 names on the register at the time, at least one raised eyebrows. One entry was not even truly a name: “Indian girl 237.”

After combing through hundreds of annual reports, correspondence and death certificates from residential schools and records supplied by White Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, we now know her name was Letitia John. 

“We come from a place that has much history and to be able to move forward we need to address some of that,” said former White Bear First Nation chief Annette Lonechild. 

“It’s only fitting that we have this privilege because of others’ research, to bring closure for someone.”

A class photo of a group of girls who attended the Qu'Appelle Industrial School in 1907.
Letitia John is likely somewhere in this girls’ class photo, taken in 1907 at the Qu’Appelle Industrial School in Lebret, Sask. Letitia was taken to the school in 1903 and would die there in 1912 of tuberculosis, documents show. (Submitted by National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation)

Raymond Frogner, head of archives for the NCTR, said both the online memorial register and the red cloth banner that features the names of children who died in Canada’s residential schools are “living documents.”

“We always expected that this would happen; if there are errors, if there are mistakes, we are very clear that we will remove that and make it as accurate as possible,” Frogner said. 

“In terms of the banner itself, it’ll have to be redone and recrafted over time, but again, these are living documents. Over time as our knowledge increases, as the investigations continue and as we understand who was lost and the circumstances of their loss, we’ll continue to add to that.” 

A grey-haired man in shirt and jeans stands by an open filing cabinet, examining archival photos.
Raymond Frogner, head of archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, goes through some of the early 20th century photos sent by priests from various residential schools to the Oblates. (Submitted by Raymond Frogner)

Frogner said “Indian girl,” and “no. 237 from White Bear’s Band” were the only pieces of information found in correspondence between school and government officials marking Letitia’s death, which is why Letitia was listed as a number on the register.

He said the NCTR is still analyzing documents to revise the list of children who died in the institutions.

Archivists with the national centre used algorithms to find names of people associated with residential schools in documents kept in its archives. The list was scrubbed to remove duplicates and names of people believed to be staff. What’s left though, is a long list of names “under a million” but “well into the six figures,” says Frogner, that need to be thoroughly researched.

Letitia John was born in 1897 or 1898 and would have been roughly five or six years old when she was first taken from her parents and registered at the Qu’Appelle Industrial School in Lebret, Sask., about 70 kilometres east of Regina, in 1903. 

Her family would have had no say in their daughter being taken to the institute, thanks to clauses in the Indian Act making attendance mandatory. 

Nine years later, a teenaged Letitia would die of tuberculosis at the school where she spent most of her short life, just over 150 kilometres away from her home in White Bear.

A death certificate of a girl who died of tuberculosis at the Qu'Appelle Industrial School
This death notice identifies Letitia John as ‘pupil number 0235 of White Bear’s Band, annuity pay-ticket no. 237.’ (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds / Library and Archives Canada/ 2061533)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report What We Have Learned called tuberculosis a crisis, responsible for nearly half of the recorded deaths in residential schools in Canada.

Poor construction and “extremely inadequate” ventilation at residential schools were reported by various federal officials in the early 1900s and were among the contributing factors to high rates of the deadly infectious disease, the report states.

“Underfunding … guaranteed that students would be poorly fed, clothed, and housed. As a result, children were highly susceptible to tuberculosis,” the report states.

An archival photo of a four-to-five storey stone building complex, with porches.
An undated photo of the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School at Lebret, Sask. (Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada/PA-023092)

In Qu’Appelle principal Rev. J. Hugonard ‘s 1912 report to Indian Affairs, Letitia’s death — and others that may have occurred that year — were omitted.

“The health of the pupils, for the year, has been good. Sanitary precautions are always taken, premises kept clean, contagious diseases isolated and ventilation attended to,” the school summary report reads.

Letitia’s family

White Bear First Nation examined the treaty annuity records, kept by Indian agents as a method of tracking families on reserves, to help confirm Letitia’s name.

The records from the community show treaty number 237 belonged to a man named John, registered in what was then called White Bear’s Band. 

Records were tied to men specifically in the early days of Indian agent record keeping, though 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 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 house in White Bear before his transfer was formalized. 

The Welcome to Lebret sign surrounded by crosses pictured in the fall of 2021.
Letitia John was taken roughly 150 kilometres from her home in White Bear First Nation to the Qu’Appelle Industrial School in Lebret, Sask. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

When asked about John’s connections to Pheasant Rump, about 155 kilometres southeast of Regina, Chief Ira McArthur said the knowledge may be long gone from his community. 

“I’ve asked a number of elders at Pheasant Rump here,” he said. 

“A lot of that history, of course, is lost over the generations. It’s really difficult to try to pinpoint people that are approximately two or three generations prior to [the elders in our community]. For John, I know that there’s the possibility he may have come from someplace else.”

McArthur said prior to signing Treaty 4 and up until 1890 or so, his community was transient between what is modern-day southeastern Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana, and they mixed with other tribes and communities along the way.

A letter detailing payments to family of a girl who died in residential school.
This is the letter — part of the correspondence the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was able to find — that connects Letitia John’s name to treaty number 237 from White Bear First Nation. (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds / Library and Archives Canada/ 2061533)

As per Indian Act rules, John’s children would be under his treaty number until his boys came of age or his daughters married into a new family. 

In 1898, records from White Bear indicate “one girl born, Letitia,” next to John’s 237 treaty number, becoming the fifth member of the family. 

In 1903, the annuity payment records from White Bear showed Letitia was enrolled at the Qu’Appelle Industrial School, where her siblings were already being taken, as “student 0235.” 

A death certificate shows “pupil 0235” at the Qu’Appelle Industrial School, who was tied to treaty annuity payment number 237 at White Bear’s Band, died from tuberculosis on Feb. 17, 1912.

A closeup image of the number 2 and girls dead.
White Bear’s treaty annuity payment records indicate ‘2 girls dead’ in the John family in 1912. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

In 1912, the Indian agent’s records from White Bear simply indicated “2 girls dead” in John’s family — the family tied to treaty number 237. 

Further correspondence between school and government officials about the death on Feb. 17, 1912 revealed Letitia’s name and showed she was tied to treaty number 237 at White Bear’s Band. 

No further information is in the records about whether Letitia’s remains were returned to White Bear or if she was buried at the school site or in Lebret, or whether her family was informed of her cause of death. 

What’s in a name?

Even when she lost her life at the institution, administration at the school, in their correspondence, stripped Letitia of her birth name.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found schools took students’ names away for administrative and reporting purposes.  

A ground penetrating radar search is conducted at the site of the former Lebret Indian Industrial School in Lebret, Sask., in Nov. 2021.
Ground penetrating radar searches were conducted at the site of the former Qu’Appelle/Lebret Indian Industrial School in Lebret, Sask., in November 2021. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

Lorena Fontaine, Indigenous Academic Lead at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, said it was government policy enforced by the priests, nuns and teachers at residential schools to remove children’s names. 

That policy, she said, caused confusion then and now about the identities of children like Letitia. 

“When children died in the schools without their original name, it’s hard to find out what happened to those children,” she said. 

Rocks painted with the words they found us sit among a pile of other painted rocks in the fall.
A pile of painted rocks stacked just inside the tall gates that separate the grounds of the former Qu’Appelle Industrial School and a railway line in the fall of 2021. The former school site sits on the western-most edge of the townsite. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

“Just imagine parents that put their children into the school under the care and guidance of the government and the churches, and had those children not come home and not know their story. It’s horrific.”

Never forgotten

CBC News first shared news about Letitia’s identity and her ties to White Bear with, former chief Lonechild on what was the eve of the community’s first-ever Truth and Reconciliation Day gathering in 2021.

A First Nations woman wearing glasses looks out a window in the winter months.
Annette Lonechild, chief of White Bear First Nation, says she thinks Letitia was never forgotten in White Bear. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Lonechild said she and the band’s legal representation would try and look into finding descendants of the family, but said weren’t able to locate any living relatives. 

But Lonechild said she didn’t doubt Letitia was remembered by people in White Bear.

“I do believe in the families and that they know their people and they know who they’ve left behind,” she said.

“Externally, the systems, the records might say something different. But I believe in our people… so I don’t truly believe anyone’s been forgotten.”

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