Death record and resting place found for Musqueam man Fraser Thomas, who escaped St. Paul’s Indian Residential School

Thomas was listed as “cannot be located” in 1947 residential school records. He died in 1980 from alcoholism after surviving seven years in the institution.

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Twelve-year-old Musqueam boy Fraser Philip Thomas escaped from a personal hell when he didn’t return to the St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver in 1946.

Sadly, he could only run so far from what he experienced in six years at the Catholic-run facility and died of chronic alcoholism in Vancouver in 1980 — according to records unearthed over the weekend.

Last Thursday, Musqueam First Nation Chief Wayne Sparrow put out a call for information after learning Thomas was listed as “cannot be located” — according to The Sisters of the Child Jesus records for January 1947 that were handed over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Thomas — born April 20, 1934 — was admitted to the facility in September 1940 at the request of his aunt. Thomas’ mother had died and his father was not involved. He was six at the time, 41 inches tall, weighed 38 pounds, spoke English and was in good health.

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According to school records (located by Pierre Sabourin) Thomas was a good student with perfect attendance until he failed to return from summer vacation in the fall of 1946. He was listed as missing in January 1947 and discharged the same month with a Grade 4 education and “manual training.”

Thomas’ death certificate states he died on March 11, 1980, aged 45 from chronic alcoholism. It said he was divorced, lived in Vancouver and was a manual labourer. He is buried in the Musqueam cemetery, not far from where Chief Sparrow put out his call last week. The death certificate was found by Vancouver researcher Christine Hagemoen.

Registration of Death certificate for Fraser Philip Thomas
Registration of Death certificate for Fraser Philip Thomas

Lila Wallace, 71, was among the last students to attend the St. Paul’s facility, entering for one year at age seven and leaving in 1958 (the school closed the following year).

While most of the 2,000 children who attended were from the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil Waututh First Nations, Wallace was from the Lil’wat Nation at Mount Currie.

“My personal stuff is so hard to talk about,” Wallace told Postmedia News. “But the day to day life of living in residential school was every day is the same. The nun claps her hands, wakes you up. You roll out of bed and go on your knees and say a prayer. You line up to go to the washroom, then you make your bed, then you line up to go to the chapel. Then you line up to go to breakfast, then line up to go to class. After school, even at seven, we had to go to the sewing room. Every day.”

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Wallace said female students were made to embroider their student number — hers was 38 — on all their clothing.

“That wasn’t easy for me, at seven,” she said.

Wallace witnessed violence against students and had her own deeply personal experiences that were recorded as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Last week’s Postmedia News story also reported St. Paul’s records stating 12-year-old Winona George from the Burrard band (now the Tsleil-Waututh Nation) could not be located in 1943.

Subsequent records show George started at the school at age seven at the request of her father Henry George. She weighed 50 pounds, stood 4’6″, spoke English and was in good health. She did not return to the school because, according to the records “mother deserted home, took girl away with her.”

Page from the St. Paul’s Indian Residential School’s fourth-quarter report for 1946 that shows Fraser Thomas cannot be located.
Page from the St. Paul’s Indian Residential School’s fourth-quarter report for 1946 that shows Fraser Thomas cannot be located.

dcarrigg@postmedia.com

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