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The year of the graves: How the world’s media got it wrong on residential school graves


The coverage triggered protests, church arsons and condemnation from Canada’s bad-faith rivals, but last summer’s reporting on the country’s long-acknowledged historic shame had little to do with what happened. Terry Glavin reports.

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This is how it all began, a year ago this week: ‘Horrible History’: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada. On May 28, 2021, that’s how the New York Times headlined the first of a summer-long series of gruesome “discoveries” that precipitated a descent into paroxysms of shame, guilt and rage that swept across the country.

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That first story was ostensibly about 215 children whose remains were discovered in a mass grave at the site of the long-shuttered Kamloops Indian Residential School, on the grounds of the main Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc reserve in British Columbia’s southern interior. The New York Times headline illustrates the way the story was almost universally reported.

Except that’s not what happened in Kamloops.

In the following weeks, while the term “mass graves” generally gave way to “unmarked graves,” a cascade of breaking news events purported to reveal several discoveries of what eventually added up to more than 1,300 child burials at other residential school sites across Canada. Except that’s not what happened in those places, either.

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Still, there were protests and violence in cities and towns from one end of Canada to the other. Dozens of churches were vandalized. Several churches were razed to the ground, some of them beloved old Indian reserve churches where Indigenous communities had baptized their children and eulogized their dead going back generations.

Statues were toppled and smashed. Canada Day events were cancelled. The Maple Leaf was lowered on Parliament Hill and on all federal buildings across the country. United Nations human rights special rapporteurs called on Canada to conduct a full investigation.

The uproars were widely characterized as a “long overdue reckoning” with the legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schools. But nothing new about the schools was revealed last summer. Despite the saturation of news coverage, the international spotlight and the reopening of old wounds inflicted on so many Indigenous people in those schools over the years, nothing new was added to the public record.

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The legacy of the schools had already been exhaustively explored in the testimony of hundreds of elders and a series of inquiries, public hearings, criminal cases, settlements and federal investigations going back decades. Most important of these efforts were the widely publicized undertakings of the 2008-2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), and the content of its voluminous findings.

On the subject of reckonings and anniversaries: it was exactly 100 years ago this year that Peter Henderson Bryce, the former medical inspector for the Department of Indian Affairs, published a shocking account of the federal government’s indifference to deaths from infectious diseases and heartless neglect in the Indian residential schools. The 24-page booklet was titled, “The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada; The Wards of The Nation, Our Allies in the Revolutionary War, Our Brothers-in-Arms in the Great War.”

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Bryce’s tell-all bombshell sparked what could be called a long-overdue reckoning with the legacy of Indian residential schools.

As for the most recent uproars: not a single mass grave was discovered in Canada last year. The several sites of unmarked graves that captured international headlines were either already-known cemeteries, or they remain sites of speculation even now, unverified as genuine grave sites. Not a single child among the 3,201 children on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 registry of residential school deaths was located in any of these places. In none of these places were any human remains unearthed.

This is not to engage in “residential school denialism,” or to downplay the suffering endured by Indigenous people in the 139 mostly church-run and mostly Catholic institutions that were in operation from the 1820s to the 1990s. This is not to dispute the proposition that the residential school system’s policy amounted to cultural genocide, at least in its foundational years, or to disregard the brutal sexual, emotional and psychological abuse inflicted on the institutions’ inmates.

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Given the unconscionable death toll in the schools due to malnutrition, tuberculosis, influenza, meningitis, pneumonia and other infectious diseases — the mortality rate in the residential schools in the early years was sometimes up to five times higher than among children in regular schools — it should be expected that there are long-forgotten burials in the vicinity of some school sites. The school in Kamloops was one of the system’s largest and longest running, in operation from 1890 to 1969.

But there was something utterly surreal about last year’s eruptions. It’s difficult to see how either truth or reconciliation had anything to do with it.

One of the most totemic images from the turbulent summer of 2021 depicted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holding a teddy bear, kneeling at a little flag marking the site of a grave near the former Marieval residential school on the Cowessess reserve in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley.

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Except it wasn’t a just-discovered residential school burial ground. The graveyard where Trudeau knelt was a Catholic cemetery, a community cemetery. Children and adults, Indigenous and settler, were buried there, going back generations. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the successor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, lists nine students who died at Marieval in the century between the school’s opening and its closing in 1997.

The “discovery” of unmarked graves at the Marieval cemetery was one of the most dramatic front-page sensations that circled the world last summer. The June 24 headline in the Washington Post was typical: Hundreds of Graves Found at Former Residential School for Indigenous Children in Canada. The number of graves reportedly discovered: 751.

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Except that’s not what happened.

The Cowessess people noted from the outset that they didn’t discover any graves; the crosses and headstones had gone missing under disputed circumstances decades earlier, and ground-penetrating radar had been brought in to enumerate and pinpoint the location of each burial. Cowesses Chief Cadmus Delorme told CBC News: “This is a Roman Catholic grave site. It’s not a residential school grave site.”

Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme speaks during a Reconciliation Day event in Cowessess First Nation, Sask., on Sept. 30, 2021.
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme speaks during a Reconciliation Day event in Cowessess First Nation, Sask., on Sept. 30, 2021. Photo by Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

Cowessess elder and former Marieval student Lloyd Lerat said the depiction of the cemetery as a burial ground for residential school children took on a life of its own. Lerat told Jorge Barrera of the CBC’s Indigenous unit in Ottawa: “We’ve always known these were there.… It’s just the fact that the media picked up on unmarked graves, and the story actually created itself from there because that’s how it happens.”

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The Marieval uproar was similar to other gravesite-discovery shocks that played out sequentially in the national and international news media last summer: it wasn’t the Indigenous people directly involved who made the disturbing claims that ended up in the headlines.

From the beginning, the local Indigenous leaders tended to argue for careful, thoughtful and precise language. It was Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir who pointed out, after the first shocking headlines: “This is not a mass grave, but rather unmarked burial sites that are, to our knowledge, also undocumented.”

What made last summer’s upheavals different from previous “overdue reckoning” episodes wasn’t just the innovation of ground-penetrating radar in the search for the remains of the children who died after being enrolled at residential schools.

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It was also that the initial “mass grave” references appeared to lend credence to a QAnon-like conspiracy theory popularized by a defrocked white United Church minister in the 1990s. Among his many baseless claims was that there was a country-wide archipelago of secret mass graves containing the remains of thousands of children murdered by priests, and behind the scandal was a vast cover-up orchestrated by Indigenous leaders, prime ministers and the Vatican.

Another key difference from earlier “reckonings” was that the residential schools’ legacy was widely interpreted in the lexicon of culture-war hyperbole, with Indigenous people largely portrayed as victims or truth-tellers about the nature of Canada as a white-supremacist, colonial settler state. Fractious divisions among and between traditional historians and a new breed of critical-studies academics, centred on theory-encumbered disputes about whether Canada should be understood only as “genocidal” in its relationships with First Nations, also had a lot to do with it.

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The local Indigenous leaders most directly involved in last summer’s “discoveries” tended to be the most cautious of all the various participants in the rancorous public debates. In some cases, those local leaders had never even intended to draw any public attention to the “ground truth” work they were overseeing at the residential school sites that ended up the subject of all those shocking headlines.

The archaeologists and ground-penetration radar (GPR) specialists engaged by those First Nation communities were similarly circumspect about the success of their efforts to locate gravesites, let alone verify persistent, macabre stories about secret graveyards and ritualized night-time burials of murdered residential school students.

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Even so, in the days following the story out of Kamloops, veteran Liberal politician Carolyn Bennett, serving as Crown-Indigenous relations minister at the time, expressed the hope that the news would be a catalyst, like the murder of George Floyd — the unarmed Black man murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020.

Chauvin was recorded on video, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 9½ minutes. The video touched off convulsions of outrage around the world. Within two weeks, the U.S. National Guard reported that more guard members had been called up to cope with the resulting civil unrest than were called to respond to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Floyd’s murder was emblematic of what the Black Lives Matter movement called “a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” The Kamloops story broke only a few days after the anniversary of Floyd’s murder, when the United States was preoccupied with retrospectives, memorial events, festivals and marches. Comparisons between the two national convulsions became commonplace. Said Bennett: “This week has opened the eyes of many Canadians. Like George Floyd did.”

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In the early rush of the Kamloops headlines, Bennett faulted Stephen Harper’s Conservative government for turning down a 2009 request for $1.5 million from a TRC working group to undertake more intensive research on residential-schools graves. But it wasn’t until four years after the TRC’s 2015 “call to action” on identifying burial locations that Ottawa set aside $33.8 million for the work. Two years later, when the Kamloops story broke, $27 million of those funds remained unspent.

It is also true that while the Black Lives Matter protests around George Floyd’s murder rested almost entirely on the premise that police are far more likely to shoot and kill Black people than white people, national crime data indicates the opposite may be the case. It was the same with the residential school grave controversies last year: the contentions came down to a substitution of what was known with what we were asked to believe.

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This is directly related to something else that has been going on throughout North America. Traditional journalism is undergoing a rapid and debilitating decline along with public trust in the “mainstream” media. The United States has lost 1,800 newsrooms over the past 20 years. In just the year leading up to the Kamloops story, 50 community newspapers were closed in Canada and 2,000 journalism jobs were lost.

In these impoverished conditions, it’s much easier for journalists to construe events in such a way as to uphold an ideologically rigid “narrative” than to go about the hard work of building true stories from the construction material of hard facts.

The empty space left behind by once-thriving newsrooms has been increasingly taken up by a constellation of advocacy-journalism startups and hybrid digital platforms intent upon throwing conventional democratic values off balance. Moscow’s RT news network (only recently jettisoned from cable offerings in North America, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine) and Beijing’s network of propaganda platforms devoted a great deal of effort last summer to hype the “Canadian genocide” story line.

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The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found that right through the summer, the Chinese government’s propaganda channels were bursting with accounts of Canada’s residential school uproars. Within two months of the initial “mass grave” headlines out of Kamloops, the Chinese Communist Party’s various multilingual propaganda sites had carried more than 90 stories about the graves.

The manic opinion-making function associated with the rise of social media networks also had a lot to do with last year’s residential-school agitations. In a 2017 article titled “Moral Outrage in the Digital Age,” in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Yale University neuroscientist Molly J. Crockett noted that the prevalence of potent, outrage-inducing online content requires close attention to the way new globe-encircling technologies “might transform ancient social emotions from a force for collective good into a tool for collective self-destruction.”

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The collective good, or collective self-destruction: which purpose was served by last year’s outrage-inducing residential-school graves uproar?

What journalists got wrong

Everybody makes mistakes. It’s easy enough for journalists to mock politicians who make a great show of play-acting in line with fashionable public anxieties, but in the role journalism played in the residential schools story last year, mistakes were made.

Sometimes mistakes appear of little consequence in the bigger scheme of things, but small mistakes can also induce crippling rage and anger at the local level, especially if the story purports to be about something unspeakably horrible that may have happened to members of one’s own family.

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Sometimes, things can go off the rails merely because of a slight imprecision in describing the big picture. One such persistent imprecision poses enormous implications about where the remains of the 3,201 children in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) death register should be expected to be found.

It’s an error that has been made fairly consistently for the past seven years, and it’s usually committed this way: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that 3,201 children died at the residential schools. Sometimes, it’s worded “while attending residential schools.” But that’s not what the TRC concluded.

Of the 3,201 children in its death registry, the TRC found no record at all of where 1,391 children died. Of the remaining 1,810 children, only 832 children died at the schools. Another 418 died at home. Another 427 died in hospitals (TRC researchers noted that some of those children may have died at one of the church-run mission hospitals associated with residential schools), 90 died at “other non-school” locations and 43 died in a sanatorium.

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While the TRC’s list includes both named and unnamed children, another routinely-cited number adds to the confusion: the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), which took over from the TRC, sets the death toll at 4,117. The NCTR says those are confirmed identities of children who reportedly died after being sent to the schools; some of the TRC’s “unnamed” children may be among the names on the NCTR list.

In any case, the former TRC chair Murray Sinclair has speculated, not unreasonably, that the real death toll was likely much higher than 3,201.

Sometimes, it’s relatively minor errors about local events that can make a difference in understanding where residential-school children may have died.

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Last year, several newspapers reported that in 1896, at B.C.’s notorious Kuper Island Residential School, 107 children — almost half the school’s enrolment at the time — died in a blaze ignited by students after Christmas holidays were cancelled. A similar version appears on the website of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre: “More than 100 students perished in a suspicious fire in 1896 after Christmas holidays were cancelled.”

This could be a misreading of two unrelated sentences in an entry on the Kuper Island school in the online archive of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: “Students set fire to the school in 1895 when holidays were cancelled. A survey carried out in that year showed that of 264 former students 107 had died.”

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One of the newspapers that carried the initial story about a horrendous child-killing conflagration quickly corrected itself this way: “An 1896 survey concluded that 107 of 264 students who had attended the school until that time had died. That same year, students set fire to the school when holidays home were cancelled.”

One particularly unhelpful feature of the residential schools coverage involves the careless conflation of horrific, verifiable crimes with second- and third-hand accounts of childhood horror stories. Reconciliation is not what you get when you render Canadians incapable of believing what they’ve been told about the schools.

Truth is not what you get when established and reputable news organizations treat the accounts of genuinely traumatized survivors of criminal acts with no more gravitas than hearsay accounts, often anonymously told, that stretch credulity to the breaking point.

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The difficulty is that when it comes to Indian residential schools, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference.

The Kuper Island Indian Residential School on Penelakut Island, near Chemainus, B.C., is pictured on June 13, 1913.
The Kuper Island Indian Residential School on Penelakut Island, near Chemainus, B.C., is pictured on June 13, 1913. Photo by Courtesy the Royal BC Museum/Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia/Handout via Reuters

The documentary record going back to the early years of the 20th century is rife with accounts of sexual predators and sadists employed by the schools. In more recent years, among the roughly 50 school officials convicted of sexually abusing and raping children in their care were supervisors, administrators, priests, brothers from religious orders and a Catholic bishop. In the case of just one abuser, Alberni Indian Residential School dormitory supervisor Arthur Plint was convicted on 18 counts of indecent assault, though his victims over a 20-year period likely included hundreds of children.

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The Independent Assessment Process (IAP) that immediately preceded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved a “non-adversarial” system that offered victims compensation as a substitute for the ordinary course of civil and criminal action. Former students who’d suffered abuse were strenuously encouraged to join the process rather than hire their own lawyers and sue for damages. The IAP process identified 5,315 people, including students and staff, who were named by former students as perpetrators of sexual assault and rape at the schools. They were never prosecuted.

That’s all horrific enough, but since last May, it has been commonplace for mainstream news organizations to give credence to lurid hearsay by reporting them alongside verified accounts of criminal brutality endured by residential school students. Youngsters thrown into incinerators. The corpses of children thrown into lakes and rivers. Priests “decapitating” children. Little girls conscripted to bury babies. Dead boys hanging by their necks in a barn.

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There was nothing especially unbelievable in what Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stated in her May 27, 2021, press release about what her council’s Language and Culture Department and “Knowledge Keepers” believed they had confirmed about alleged burials at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

There had been persistent stories in the community going back decades about graves in the vicinity of an orchard adjacent to the school. Research had begun in the early 2000s. What was new was that a GPR survey, made possible by a provincial Pathway to Healing grant, had appeared to “confirm” 215 burials.

A few weeks later, Sarah Beaulieu, the archaeologist overseeing the GPR survey, said that the burials could not be confirmed. At least not without excavation. “Which is why we need to pull back a little bit and say that they are ‘probable burials,’ they are ‘targets of interest,’ for sure,” Beaulieu told the Globe and Mail, adding that there were “multiple signatures that present like burials,” but that “we do need to say that they are probable, until one excavates.” The Tk’emlúps community has not announced a decision to undertake any excavations.

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Similar stories about clandestine burials had been making the rounds at another former Catholic-run school on the other side of the country, in Shubenacadie, N.S. Immediately after the Kamloops story broke, the Sipekne’katik First Nation brought ground-penetrating radar to the task of searching for graves. After a couple months of investigation, the only graves discovered were of settlers who were buried a century before the school opened.

After Kamloops on May 27, and Cowessess on June 24, the Aq’am community near Cranbrook, B.C., was thrust into the international spotlight on June 30, 2021. The CBC headline from that day was typical of headlines around the world: 182 Unmarked Graves Discovered Near Residential School in B.C.’s Interior, First Nation Says.

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The case quickly turned out to be strikingly similar to the situation in Cowessess — it wasn’t about a just-discovered Indian residential school graveyard at all. The local Indigenous leadership at the site of the old St. Eugene’s residential school was faster on its feet in its attempts to correct the error. The confusion appears to have arisen from press statements made by another Ktunaxa community.

Aq’am Chief Joe Pierre issued an immediate press release, but it garnered far less attention than the initial, shocking report. “The leadership of (Aq’am) wishes to clarify information that has appeared on various social media platforms as well as national and international news,” wrote Pierre.

He went on to explain that a year earlier, a single burial was inadvertently disturbed during remedial work adjacent to the former residential school, where a grand old building had been acquired by several Ktunaxa communities and repurposed as part of a golf resort and casino.

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The burial was in an old cemetery originally set aside for white settlers, in 1865, nearly half a century before the residential school was built. There had also been a hospital at the site from 1874 to 1899, and it was around that time that Ktunaxa people began to bury their dead in the cemetery. The residential school was in operation from 1912 to 1970, but nobody could say whether any residential school students were buried in its unmarked graves.

After the single burial was exposed in 2020, the community employed ground-penetrating radar to survey the site. The survey suggested the presence of 182 graves that had long lost their wooden crosses. That’s where the 182 “unmarked graves” in the headlines came from.

“Graves were traditionally marked with wooden crosses and this practice continues to this day in many Indigenous communities across Canada. Wooden crosses can deteriorate over time due to erosion or fire which can result in an unmarked grave,” Chief Pierre explained.

Ground-penetrating radar is used in the search for unmarked graves near a former residential school in Saskatchewan.
Ground-penetrating radar is used in the search for unmarked graves near a former residential school in Saskatchewan. Photo by Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix

“These factors, among others, make it extremely difficult to establish whether or not these unmarked graves contain the remains of children who attended the St. Eugene residential school.”

The next flurry of sensational headlines came on July 13, this time focused on Penelakut Island, known until 2010 as Kuper Island, the ancient home of an Indigenous community on British Columbia’s south coast. A typical report, from the Guardian, read: “A First Nations community in western Canada has announced the discovery of at least 160 unmarked graves close to a former residential school — the latest in a series of grim announcements from across the country in recent weeks.”

Except there was no such announcement.

As in the case of the cemetery near the former St. Eugene’s residential school two weeks earlier, the cascade of headlines about a “discovery” at Penelakut Island was not invited by the Penelakut Tribe. The news appears to have come from a single memo Penelakut Chief Joan Brown sent to neighbouring tribes on Vancouver Island several days before, on July 8, which ended up being posted on Facebook.

The Facebook post eventually attracted the notice of local journalists, and the “discovery” immediately elicited a response from Prime Minister Trudeau, who said, “I recognize these findings only deepen the pain that families, survivors and all Indigenous peoples and communities are already feeling as they reaffirm truth that they have long known.”

As for the original source referring to those findings, the July 8 memo was an invitation to an upcoming “March for the Children” that the Penelakut Tribe was hosting in the local community of Chemainus, to raise awareness about the gruesome legacy of the Kuper Island Indian Residential School that was located on the Penelakut reserve from 1889 to 1975, and “confirmation of the 160+ undocumented and unmarked graves in our grounds and foreshore.”

This wasn’t an announcement about just-discovered graves on the grounds of the residential school — an institution notorious in the memory of Indigenous elders who were sent there as children from throughout southern Vancouver Island and B.C.’s Lower Mainland. It’s still unclear whether the reference was to recent GPR findings of soil disturbances, or excavations of recent or ancient remains, and the Penelakut Tribe isn’t saying.

In a public statement in the days after the sensational July 12 headlines, a statement released by the Penelakut Tribe noted that researchers from the University of British Columbia had been assisting in the search for graves on the island since 2014, and that no further comment on the emotionally-charged subject would be forthcoming until it was “appropriate.”

More than 100 children are known to have died after being enrolled at the Kuper Island school and stories have circulated for decades about students being buried on the grounds, but they remain stories. Directed by Penelakut elders and a former student of the school in 1999, an RCMP task force conducted an excavation at the site, but found nothing.

In Shubenacadie, after GPR surveys, aerial laser scanning and archival searches concluded in August with no evidence of residential-school burials, Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack said he was pleased with the result. It was what the Mi’kmaq people in the area were hoping for. “We know that people need closure and healing,” Chief Sack said.

But closure and healing don’t always follow, even after stories about burials prompt GPR surveys, and then meticulously conducted excavations that fail to turn up any human remains.

For years, stories have persisted about burials at the long-abandoned Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton, one of several federal “Indian hospitals” that are currently the subject of a $1.1-billion class action lawsuit. Serving mostly as a tuberculosis sanitarium, the Camsell hospital treated hundreds of Indigenous patients from across northern Alberta, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, with hospital stays sometimes lasting several years.

In the days after the Kamloops story broke, a property-development firm that owns the Camsell site brought in a GPR firm to search for graves, in close consultation with Papaschase First Nation Chief Calvin Bruneau and Indigenous people who said they remembered where the graves were.

After a summer of surveys and careful excavations at each flagged site, the work concluded in October after having encountered no burials. Speaking with the CBC after the work was completed, Chief Bruneau said there were still lingering concerns about burials at the site. “What happened to them? That’s something there that is a big question for me, if they were removed and reburied somewhere else.”

The fallout

In the end, after all the national convulsions sparked by last summer’s sensational headlines about the discoveries of at least 1,300 unmarked graves containing the remains of residential-school children, this is what we’re left with.

At the Kamloops Indian Residential School, ground penetrating radar identified 200 “probable” but unconfirmed burials of children from the residential school days.

At Cowessess, the graves of 751 Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults and children were enumerated and properly located in an old Catholic cemetery. At St. Eugene’s, there is a well-known cemetery, originally set aside for white settlers but a place where Indigenous people are buried as well, that had long ago lost its wooden crosses. The burials of 182 people have now been enumerated and properly located.

At Shubenacadie, extensive surveys came across the graves of Irish immigrants from a century before the old residential school there first opened its doors. Their graves were found in the area where former students had reported a burial site. At Penelakut Island, “160+” possible burials may or may not have been discovered last summer, and some of them might be associated with a long-shuttered residential school.

That’s what all the headlines were about.

These things are calculable. It’s not so easy to measure the degree of trauma rekindled in survivors of residential school abuse each time those headlines appeared, each time they turned on the radio, each time they tuned in to the television news.

It isn’t easy to measure the grief inflicted upon the Indigenous parishes and congregations at Gitwangak, Chopaka, Princeton, Osoyoos and Penticton, B.C., when the churches their ancestors built were burned to the ground last summer. Another five churches were razed across the country, not including 15 or so that were set on fire but survived, and dozens of churches in towns and cities that were desecrated, their windows smashed, their doors splashed with paint or defaced with slogans.

It has become common practice for some news organizations to caution readers and viewers that what’s coming in a report about residential schools will be unpleasant, in phrasing like, “WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.” Such stories are likely to become quite routine in the coming years.

Since last summer, more suspected unmarked graves have turned up, and the searches will continue indefinitely now that the federal government has come around to devoting serious resources to the search efforts.

Last August, Ottawa announced a $321-million investment in Indigenous-led efforts to continue the search for the remains of children who died after being enrolled in the schools.

Last September, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that it would raise $30 million to support “healing and reconciliation initiatives for residential school survivors, their families and their communities” across Canada.

Pope Francis holds an audience with Indigenous delegations from Canada at the Vatican on April 1.
Pope Francis holds an audience with Indigenous delegations from Canada at the Vatican on April 1. Photo by Vatican Media/Reuters

Last month, Pope Francis officially apologized on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church for its role in bringing harm to Canada’s Indigenous peoples in the residential school system. Earlier this month, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will be visiting Iqaluit, Edmonton and Quebec City — but not Kamloops, where last year’s drama began.

At Shubenacadie, where extensive investigations turned up nothing, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller announced a fund of $326,700 for the Sipekne’katik community to conduct further research and memorialize the residential school with commemorative events and a plaque.

Then there was the small matter of the Canadian flag.

It was only three days after the story about the graves in Kamloops made its way around the world that Trudeau ordered Canada’s flags lowered to half-mast on Parliament Hill and on all federal building across the country, to honour the children whose remains were reported to be in those unmarked graves.

This was to prove awkward, owing to the question of what celebratory juncture would warrant the raising of the flags again. The flags remained at half-mast under the “exceptional circumstances” provisions of the official half-masting rules for more than five months.

It was the Kahnawake Mohawks who first broke the stasis, raising the flag on a local Royal Canadian Legion hall so it could be lowered to pay respects to a deceased veteran. The Trudeau government finally resolved to raise the flags the day before Indigenous Veterans Day so they could be lowered again on Nov. 8, then raised again the next day so they could be lowered again on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, then raised again and left at full mast.

Only a week after the Kamloops story broke, Bill C-5 was adopted, creating a new federal holiday every Sept. 21, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. A bit of a damper was thrown on the occasion when the day came around last September, after it was realized that Prime Minister Trudeau had quietly jetted off to Tofino, B.C., for a vacation when his office itinerary had him in “private meetings” in Ottawa. Trudeau later apologized for the indiscretion.

Before the summer was over, the Cowessess First Nation had secured an historic agreement along with $38 million in funding allowing the community to get out from under federal jurisdiction to run its own child-welfare system.

In the bigger-picture scheme of things, three weeks after the Kamloops story broke, China led a bloc of torture states that included Belarus, Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea in a condemnation of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. Beijing’s move pre-empted a Canadian initiative, three years in the making, assembling a coalition of countries to force the United Nations to investigate China’s trampling of human rights in Xinjiang.

A week after that, in the Canadian senate, Beijing-friendly senators Yuen Pau Woo and Peter Harder used the pretext of the residential schools legacy to condemn a motion that would have replicated a House of Commons resolution declaring Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang a genocide. China’s foreign ministry praised the no-vote senators as “people of vision.”

In the Canadian Press news agency “newsmaker of the year” balloting, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians released last September after nearly three years’ imprisonment in China, came in third, with nine votes. Front-line health workers came in second, with 14 votes. Editors gave 56 out of 88 votes to the children who never returned from residential schools.

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