Death of Percy Ochapowace

Sometime between 1:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. on January 13, 1935, three boys, Percy Ochapowace, Glen Gaddie, and Alec Wasacase, ran away from the Round Lake school in Saskatchewan. It was -32 degrees Celsius and, shortly after the boys left the school, a blizzard blew up. After walking a distance, they made a fire to warm themselves. They then separated, with Wasacase and Gaddie heading west, while 15-year-old Ochapowace went south, towards his home. According to Wasacase, he and Gaddie travelled about one and one half miles and were cold and tired again, and built another fire. “We lay down for awhile and went to sleep. I woke up and could not see Glen Gaddie. I found him covered up in snow. I got him on his feet and we noticed a light. We walked towards the light and reached the home of Alex Belanger. We found Mrs. Belanger home alone. We had something to eat and went to sleep. We stayed there over night and the next morning went home.” According to Mrs. Belanger, it was about 8:00 p.m. when the boys arrived at her house.

On the night of January 16, three days after the boys had run away, Alex Belanger encountered Percy Ochapowace’s brother Dani l, and asked if Percy had got home safely. Daniel, under the impression that Percy was still in school, was taken by surprise. When he realized that his brother had run away and had not returned home, he went from house to house, looking for him. At 10:00 p.m., he ran into the Ochapowace Reserve farm instructor, Leander Carlson, and told him that Percy was missing. Early the following morning (January 17), Carlson alerted the local Mounted Police detachment that three boys had run away from the Round Lake school on January 13, and that one was still missing. The police informed the local Indian agent, J. P. B. Ostrander, who was unaware that any boys had run away. Ostrander then contacted the school principal, R. J. Ross, who could provide no additional information. The investigating officer, H. S. Casswell, and Ostrander then went to the reserve, where they interviewed Wasacase and Belanger and organized a search party of thirty-five First Nations men.

With the search party underway, Casswell and Ostrander went to the Round Lake school, where they interviewed Ross. He stated he had not realized the boys were missing until 5:00 p.m. on January 13, several hours after they had left:

I did not think it worth while sending after them, as they would have nearly reached home by this time. It is not customary to follow boys, 12, 13, or 14 years of age after they get a 2 or 3 hour start on us, from the school. I did not get in touch with anyone outside of the school to let them know the boys had left, but I wrote a letter to Mr. Ostrander, on 16th Jan./35, informing him that these three boys had run away from the school. The letter was posted in Stockholm on Jan. 17th, 1935. I did not know that the boy had not arrived home safely until I received the telephone call from Mr. Ostrander this morning.

Casswell and Ostrander then rejoined the search party. Percy Ochapowace’s frozen body was discovered at 6:30 p.m., about two and a half kilometres from where he had parted company with Gaddie and Wasacase. Wearing only a sweater, overalls, socks, and rubber boots, he had crawled into a willow stand in search of shelter. The following day, Dr. Allingham examined Percy’s body at the Ochapowace Reserve, and interviewed the principal and Percy’s father, Walter Ochapowace. He concluded that death was due to exposure and stated “no inquest was necessary.”In his report to Indian Affairs on the death, Ostrander wrote,

In view of the extremely cold weather and bad roads the Revd. Principal would have been well advised to have an immediate search made as the boys [sic] tracks could have been followed in the snow but apparently as the boys ranged from 13 to 15 years of age he thought they would reach their homes in safety.

… As would be expected the father of the deceased as well as other Indians who have children in this school are considerably upset and are inclined to place the blame on the Revd. Principal for failing to have the boys immediately followed when it was found that they were missing and also for not taking steps to inform them and myself more promptly. When I asked the Revd. Principal why he had not acted more promptly he informed me that he did not anticipate any serious consequences owing to the age of the boys as he thought they would have no difficulty in reaching their homes.115

Indian Affairs departmental secretary A. F. Mackenzie informed Ostrander that

the Principal should have instituted an immediate search when it was discovered that the boys had left the school, more especially so in view of weather conditions. He should have informed the parents and yourself and instituted a search at once. The death of the boy, under the circumstances, is much regretted, and I would request that you convey to the parents the Department’s sympathy for their loss.116

There was no suggestion that any policies had been violated or that there was a need to establish policies for searches for runaways. There was no suggestion that the United Church, which ran the school, be contacted regarding the lapse in judgment on the part of the principal. There was no suggestion that a circular be sent to other schools regarding the need to undertake searches in the case of runaways. There were to be no consequences, or assigning of responsibility, or remedial action, for a decision that Indian Affairs clearly believed to be inappropriate.

Garnett Neff, a lawyer hired by the deceased boy’s father, Walter Ochapowace, asked Dr. Allingham to reconsider his recommendation not to hold an inquest. Dr. Allingham had been doing work for Indian Affairs in the region since 1914. He refused to reconsider. Neff then called upon Indian Affairs Minister T. G. Murphy to hold “a full investigation into all the facts surrounding the death of the boy and to clear up definitely whether there be any culpable or criminal negligence involved.”117 In a note, Murphy stated that the death had been “thoroughly investigated by the Coroner,” and, as a result, “no further action is considered necessary.”118

In his frustrated response to Murphy, Neff pointed out, “The mere fact that it would appear that the officials of the Round Lake school knew nothing about the death of this boy until the Thursday following would indicate a laxity and culpability for which they should be held responsible.” He also announced his intention of writing to the provincial attorney general, to request a coroner’s inquiry.119 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has not been able to locate any record of such a request. Neff did write to the federal minister of justice, Hugh Guthrie, requesting the appointment of a commission of inquiry, under the Enquiries Act. He did not dispute that Percy’s death was caused by exposure, but said that Percy’s father and other members of the community believed “there must be extreme laxity and carelessness either in the interpretation of such rules as there may be or in the rules themselves that it does seem to be inhuman that if it be true, no enquiry or search was made for the boy for three or four days in extreme weather.” Neff thought such an inquiry should examine both “the facts surrounding the death of this boy” and “the whole scheme of control of the children in this School.”120

The request was rebuffed.In closing o˜ the correspondence, the minister of justice wrote to Neff˜ that he did not believe “an inquiry under oath would elicit any information not already in the possession of the authorities.” Guthrie then attempted to suggest that the schools were really not government responsibilities, saying it was his understanding that “the school is an undertaking of the United Church of Canada, and that it is built on reserve land and is in receipt of a grant from the Department, and is subject to some measure of inspection by the Department, but is not in any way
under its management or control.” To the extent that the superintendent general of Indian Aff˜airs was “under any responsibility in the matter,” he was suggesting to him that he investigate to see if “more care is exercised with regard to the custody and care of the children residing therein.”121 Extracted from Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939 The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission of Canada (Volume 1,Part 1, pp. 591-594).