What do We Know So Far About Unmarked Graves at Canadian Residential Schools

It is hard to believe that a preliminary search for an alleged cemetery or mass grave in an apple orchard on reserve land near the residential school of Kamloops could have led to such a spiral of claims endorsed by the Canadian government and repeated by mass media all over the world. 

Newsroom (30/01/2022, 9:15 PM Gaudium Press) The Canadian Press has just honoured the children of residential schools as the “Person of the Year 2021.” Last summer, an extensive media story grew out of the scanning of part of the site in the British Columbia interior where the school operated from 1890 to 1978 run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of St. Anne of Quebec. The “discovery” was first reported last May 27 by Tk’emlúps te secwépemc First Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir after an anthropologist, Sarah Beaulieu, used ground-penetrating radar in a search for the remains of children alleged by some to be buried there.

A preliminary report did not find bodies but rather soil disruptions in a nearby apple orchard. Having “barely scratched the surface,” she found many “disturbances in the ground such as tree roots, metal and stones.” The “disruptions picked up in the radar,” she says, led her to conclude that the sites “have multiple signatures that present like burials.” But she cannot confirm that until the site is excavated – if it is ever done. A community spokesperson says the full report “cannot” be released to the media. For Chief Casimir, “it is not yet clear whether the continuing work on the Kamloops site will involve excavation.”

No remains were exhumed, but First Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir stated that according to community “knowledge,” the soil abnormalities were 215 “missing children,” some as young as three.

The anthropologist who oversaw the scans cautiously theorized that there were likely 200 “probable burials” — not specifying age — based on the disturbances. But only excavation could provide further evidence of anything, and no excavation has yet been done. 

But the story was too good to fact-check and went viral, substituting for “unmarked graves,” a distinction with an enormous difference since “mass” graves are associated with genocide.

Suddenly there was talk of “thousands” of “missing” Indigenous children whose parents had not been informed of their deaths. The Parliamentary flag was lowered to half-mast; China (whose human rights record is far from unblemished) called for an investigation into Canada’s human rights violations at the UN Human Rights Tribunal; Pope Francis expressed pain over the “shocking discovery in Canada of the remains of 215 children” at Kamloops.

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Nobody in political authority — not even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — has at the time of writing this article pointed out that no actual remains have been found. Thus, Jacques Rouillard, professor emeritus in the Department of History at the Université de Montréal, writes, “[G]overnments and the media are simply granting credence to what is really a thesis: the thesis of the ‘disappearance’ of children from residential schools.” The consensus of “cultural genocide,” endorsed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), contested by many accredited historians routinely cold-shouldered by uncritical mainstream media, has effectively been elevated to literal genocide, “a conclusion that the Commission explicitly rejects in its TRC report.”

According to another anthropologist, Scott Hamilton, who has worked on residential school cemeteries for the TRC between 2013-2015, “one must be very careful with the use of ground-penetrating radar because the soil may have been disturbed over the years by “sedimentary texture, … culturally-derived unconformities, obstructions or voids.” A project to test the soil with the same method at the Brandon Residential School in Manitoba, which began in 2012 and was re-launched in 2019, has not yet yielded any conclusive results. In June, the research team worked to identify 104 potential graves and still needs to consult the residential school’s archives and interview survivors.

Faulty counting methodology

In its 2015 report, the TRC identified 3,200 deaths of children at residential schools. Surprisingly, it was unable to record the names of one-third of the children (32%) or for half (49%), the cause of death. Why are there so many “nameless” residential school students? According to Vol. 4 of the Report, there are “significant limitations in both the quality and quantity of the data the Commission has been able to compile on residential school deaths.”

In fact, each trimester, school principals reported the names of students attending school to be funded by the government and specified the names of any students who had died. But “in many cases,” the report says, school principals simply reported on the number of children who had died in the previous year, without identification. Or, they might give a total of the number of students who had died since a specific school opened but with no indication of the name, year, or cause of death.

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The Commission included all these unnamed students in the total of student deaths. That means that student deaths could have been counted twice: both in the trimester report by the principals and in the general compilation with no names. The Commission admitted that this possibility exists that some of the deaths recorded in the Named Register might also be included in the Unnamed Register.

This obviously biased method dramatically inflates the number of missing students and the actual state of knowledge surrounding their deaths. And this flawed information is what lies at the root of the assumption that any unnamed students disappeared without their parents being informed and that the schools crudely buried them in mass graves.

This methodological gap likely relates to the years before 1950 because the death rate recorded by the Commission in residential schools from 1921 to 1950 (named and unnamed deaths) is twice as high as that of Canadian youth in the general population aged five to fourteen for the same years. This mortality rate averaged about four deaths per year for every 1,000 youth attending the schools. Their deaths were mostly due to tuberculosis and influenza when the Commission could identify the cause.

On the other hand, the mortality rate in residential schools was actually comparable to the Canadian average from 1950 to 1965, again for youth aged five to fourteen. That drop from the previous period is most likely the result of the vaccination in the residential schools as in other Canadian schools.

Questions that need to be asked

The Kamloops residential school is located at the heart of the Kamloops Reserve itself — a fact that is never reported by Aboriginal spokespersons or the media. The TRC report states that “schools were virtually all church-run in the early years of the system [and] Christian burial was the norm at most schools.” Also, the adjoining church cemetery “may be used as a burial ground for students who die at the school as well as for members of the local community and the missionaries themselves.”

With the cemetery so close by, is it credible that the remains of 200 children were buried clandestinely in a mass grave, on the reserve itself, without any reaction from the band council until last summer? Chief Casimir states that the presence of children’s remains had been “known” in the community for a long time. Aboriginal families are as concerned about the fate of their children as any other community; why did they say nothing? Moreover, how can one think that entire groups of religious men and women dedicated to high moral standards could conspire to commit such sordid crimes without dissent and not even a single whistleblower?

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According to historian Jim Miller of the University of Saskatchewan, “the remains of children discovered in Marieval and Kamloops had been buried in cemeteries according to Catholic rites, under wooden crosses that quickly crumbled.” “The wooden cross was a Catholic burial marker for the poor,” confirms Brian Gettler of the University of Toronto.

According to the TRC report, the churchyard often served as a place of worship and burial for students who died at school as well as for members of the local community and the missionaries themselves. As residential school cemeteries have been abandoned, neglected, and even forgotten after their closure, they have blurred into the background. In many cases, they became difficult to locate or were used for other purposes. The Commission rightly proposed that they be documented, maintained, and protected.

Agents of the Department of Indian Affairs, closely monitoring school operations, would have responded quickly to news of any missing or deceased children – if there had been any. Finally, as we have seen, the province required the completion of a death certificate for all deceased persons. At the turn of the twentieth century, British Columbia was not the wild west. Any researcher today wishing to obtain the death certificate of any child attending the Kamloops residential school, can get it by entering the name and date of death on the British Columbia Genealogical Records website.

It is hard to believe that a preliminary search for an alleged cemetery or mass grave in an apple orchard on reserve land near the residential school of Kamloops could have led to such a spiral of claims endorsed by the Canadian government and repeated by mass media all over the world. It gives a terrible and simplistic impression of complex issues in Canadian history. The exhumations have not yet begun, and no remains have been found. Imaginary stories and emotions may have outweighed the pursuit of truth. After all, the best way of heading to the road of reconciliation should be to seek and tell the whole truth rather than deliberately create sensational myths. 

With files from the Dorchester Review and The National Post

Compiled by Raju Hasmutkh

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