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The truth about Canada’s Indian graves The indigenous industry is thriving off fake news

The story about unmarked graves is either false or highly exaggerated. Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images


June 29, 2022   7 mins

On 27 May 2021, the Chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc — a First Nations government in British Columbia — announced that ground penetrating radar (GPR) had located the remains of 215 “missing children”. These were allegedly “undocumented deaths” from the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which had closed 52 years ago.

The young anthropologist who conducted the GPR search later added a note of caution: only a forensic investigation could confirm that these were indeed burials. But a moral panic had already been unleashed. Politicians and the media immediately seized on the first announcement, and “burials of missing children” was the storyline that ricocheted around Canada and much of the world. Meanwhile, several other First Nations that had at one time hosted residential schools hired their own anthropologists armed with GPR and announced similar discoveries. Weeks later, almost exactly a year ago, in June 2021, the Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of another former residential school in Saskatchewan.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set the tone of the public response on 30 May by ordering Canadian flags to be flown at half-mast on all federal building to honour the “215 children whose lives were taken at the Kamloops residential school”, thus elevating the possible burials to the status of murder victims and making Canada sound like a charnel house of murdered children. Unprecedented in Canadian history, flags remained at half-mast until Remembrance Day, 11 November, and were returned to normal height only after the Assembly of First Nations gave its OK.

In spite of this ostentatious virtue-signalling, Trudeau got into trouble when he skipped an event in Kamloops on 30 September to commemorate the missing children. Apparently, our surfer dude prime minister preferred to ride the waves at Tofino on the Pacific coast rather than attend a commemorative ceremony. To make up for his faux pas, he had to go to Kamloops on 18 October for another memorial ceremony, at which he was harangued for several hours.

But not all the events in the wake of the Kamloops announcement were so amusing. Sixty-eight Christian churches, mostly Roman Catholic, were vandalised or even burned to the ground. Many of these were historical church buildings still used and revered by native people. The pretext for arson and vandalism was that the Kamloops Indian Residential School had been run by a Catholic religious order, as had 43% of all residential schools. Imagine the outrage if 68 synagogues or mosques had been vandalised and burned. Yet the attacks on 68 Catholic churches passed with only mild criticism.

An article in the New York Times was typical of media commentary about the unmarked graves. It was first published under the headline “Horrible History: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada” on 28 May and updated on 5 October under the same title. It asserted that: “For decades, most Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools. A large number never returned home, their families given only vague explanations, or none at all.”

Because the corporate press take their cue from the New York Times, its perspective echoed widely. The discovery of the so-called unmarked graves was chosen by Canadian newspaper editors as the “news story of the year”. And the World Press Photo of the Year award went to “a haunting image of red dresses hung on crosses along a roadside, with a rainbow in the background, commemorating children who died at a residential school created to assimilate Indigenous children in Canada”.

But the award this news report should have won is for fake news of the year. All the major elements of the story are either false or highly exaggerated.

First, no unmarked graves have been discovered at Kamloops or elsewhere. GPR has located hundreds of soil disturbances, but none of these has been excavated, so it is not known whether they are burial sites, let alone children’s graves. At her original press conference, the Chief of the Kamloops Indian Band called these findings unmarked graves, and the media, politicians, and even Pope Francis ran with the story without waiting for proof.

Similar claims from the chiefs of other Indian reserves ran into grave difficulty (no pun intended) because the GPR research was conducted in whole or in part on community cemeteries located near the sites of residential schools. It would hardly be surprising to find burial sites in a cemetery! But again, since no excavations have been conducted, it is not known whether these unmarked graves contain the bodies of children.

North American Indians did not conduct burials; they usually exposed the bodies of the dead to be worn away by predators and the elements. Christian missionaries introduced the practice of burial. But Indian graves were usually marked by simple wooden crosses that could not long withstand the rigours of Canadian weather. Thus Indian reserves today contain probably tens of thousands of forgotten unmarked graves of both adults and children. To “discover” these with ground-penetrating radar proves nothing without excavation.

Second, there are no “missing children”. This concept was invented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose members spoke at various times of 2,800 or 4,200 Indian children who were sent to residential schools but never returned to their parents. Indeed, some children died at residential schools of diseases such as tuberculosis, just as they did in their home communities. But the legend of missing students arose from a failure of TRC researchers to cross-reference the vast number of historical documents about residential schools and the children who attended them.

In the fake news stories, the “unmarked graves” are presumed to be populated by the “missing children”, who died at residential school. Lurid tales of torture and murder, of babies thrown into the furnace and hanging from meat hooks, make the stories more colourful. However, the notion of missing children cannot stand up to critical scrutiny. Indian parents, like other parents, loved their children and certainly would have noticed if they went away to school and never came back. But no inquiries about missing Indian children were ever filed with the police. Moreover, children were carefully tracked in the residential school system. Similar to boarding schools all over the world, each child received a number upon admission for keeping track of clothing and other possessions.

The federal Department of Indian Affairs also recorded students because it paid a per capita subsidy to the schools. It reviewed admission records meticulously because it didn’t want to pay for the white and Métis students who sometimes got into the residential schools, even though they were supposed to be only for Indians. On the other side, the residential schools were equally motivated to keep track of students because their income depended on the per capita subsidies. If students disappeared, their subsidy would have decreased.

Third, stories about Indian residential schools are almost always accompanied by the frightening claim that 150,000 students were “forced to attend” these schools, but the claim is misleading at best. Scholars generally agree that more students attended day schools on Indian reserves than went away to residential schools. Moreover, a large number didn’t go to any school at all. It wasn’t until 1920 that school attendance was made compulsory for Indian children, and enforcement was often lax. It was estimated in 1944 that upwards of 40% of Indian children were not in any kind of school.

For students who did attend residential school, there had to be an application form signed by a parent or other guardian. Many of these forms still exist and can be seen in online government archives. The simple truth is that, despite allegations of physical and sexual abuse, many Indian parents saw the residential schools as the best option available for their children. Cree artist Kent Monkman’s famous painting The Scream, showing missionaries and mounted policemen snatching infants from the arms of their Indian mothers, is a fever dream of the imagination. It is not even close to an accurate depiction of historical reality, not even if taken metaphorically.

*

How could the fake news story of unmarked graves, with its attendant legends of missing children ripped from the arms of their mothers, have gained such wide currency among political and media elites? The short answer is that it fits perfectly into the progressive narrative of white supremacy, of the white majority in Canada oppressing racial minorities. But there is also a specific etiology of the unmarked grave story.

Prior to 1990, residential schools enjoyed largely favourable coverage in the media, with many positive testimonials from students who had attended them. Indeed, alumni of the residential schools made up most of the emerging First Nations elite. Then Manitoba regional chief Phil Fontaine spoke on a popular Canadian Broadcasting Company radio show about how he had suffered sexual abuse at a residential school. After that things went south quickly. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples wrote critically about the schools; two historians wrote influential books; and lawyers launched multiple class actions on behalf of residential school “survivors”, claiming damages for physical and sexual abuse, as well as loss of language and culture at the schools.

Rather than contest these lawsuits in court, the Liberal government of Paul Martin negotiated a settlement in 2005, which was accepted shortly afterwards by the newly elected Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Ultimately about $5 billion in compensation was paid to about 80,000 claimants, and Prime Minister Harper gave a public apology for the existence of residential schools in 2008.

Harper might have thought that the compensation payments and his apology would be the end of the story, but it was only the beginning. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he appointed took off in its own direction after the initial set of commissioners resigned and had to be replaced on fairly short notice. The TRC held emotional public hearings around the country at which “survivors” were invited to tell their stories without fact-checking or cross-examination. Most had already made claims for financial compensation in which the amount paid was proportional to the degree of sexual and physical abuse suffered, again without fact-checking or cross-examination. The TRC concluded that the residential schools amounted to “cultural genocide”.

While this was going on, lawyers were bringing more class actions for other forms of Indian education, such as day schools on reserves, or boarding in town to attend public schools. Harper’s government offered some resistance in court, but the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, elected in 2015, preferred to settle out of court. Billions of dollars more are being paid out as a result.

Against this background, the claims of unmarked graves are a new money-maker. In August 2021, the federal government announced $321 million in special grants to First Nations for research about unmarked graves, and Canada’s 2022 budget pledged $275 million for “addressing the shameful legacy of residential schools”. Meanwhile indigenous leaders are pursuing claims for financial compensation from the Catholic Church.

Fake news does not arise and thrive in a political vacuum. While progressive ideology makes academia and the Liberal government a receptive audience, the indigenous industry has an obvious financial stake in driving the story. As long as the dollars flow, expect more stories about unmarked graves, yet no excavations to test the truth of the stories.


Tom Flanagan is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at The University of Calgary.


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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

As with Canada, so with Australia. The demand for historical injustice and outrage exceeds the supply, but that’s no problem for today’s news media.

Ian S
Ian S
2 years ago

I’m so pleased to see this article. Months ago I wrote the following to the BBC “fact-check” team, and have never received a reply:
“I’d be grateful if your “Fact Check” team could run a fact check on the BBC news article at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-57291530 The article in question is egregious in the extreme… the reporting in the BBC article was irresponsible, dangerous, sensational, and clearly UNTRUTHFUL in many ways. Among the most serious of the falsehoods in the article is perpetrated in the title itself: “Canada mourns as remains of 215 children found at indigenous school“. The first sentence in the article – printed in bold type – states that “Unmarked graves containing the remains of 215 children have been found…” and the article proceeds – without evidence – to make various claims that have been proved to be baseless. A thoroughly researched refutation of the claims made about the school in question is at https://www.dorchesterreview.ca/blogs/news/in-kamloops-not-one-body-has-been-found This research paper provides ample evidence that refutes the iniquitous falsehoods presented in various media, including the BBC article.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

Didn’t think the news could get any more depressing today but I guess it just did. Even excavations won’t put this to bed, I suspect. Material proof is nowadays trumped by “lived experience”, which is in itself all the evidence anyone could ever need. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the dumb decade.

Jim R
Jim R
2 years ago

Perhaps the most chilling thing about all of this is that this article will likely be censored under Justin Trudeau’s new internet censorship law. As I sit here in Canada I wonder how much longer it will even be possible to read anything that questions the official state / media narrative.

Craig Baldwin
Craig Baldwin
2 years ago
Reply to  Jim R

As a fellow Canadian, I lament the loss of our free press. Thanks to Blackface’s $600 bribe to the MSM, they are quite content in their new role as state propagandists. Free thinking Canadians (a moribund creature) must now rely on the foreign press to ascertain what is really going on in our own country. Unfortunately, that requires using the internet, and our communist loving PM has just passed a new bill that will heavily censor internet content – just like his heroes, red China! There is no such thing a good news in Canada. Blackface has outlawed it.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Craig Baldwin

I hate to break it to you, but you can’t rely on the foreign press, if you mean such as the BBC!

Hilary Taylor
Hilary Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Craig Baldwin

Here in NZ the government bribe is called The Public Interest Journalism Fund. Receipt of funds is directly tied to the publication toeing the government line that promulgates a new interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi with Maori back in 1840, that says Maori never ceded sovereignty to the Crown. This line champions ‘co-governance’ across public services and entities, comprising elected officials and unelected tribal representation in health & water, so far. Fierce debate/backlash over the water proposals, while the new stand-alone Maori Health Auth starts tomorrow.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

Self flagellating pogroms, and the best thing about it ? You can use other peoples money to pay for the ‘assumed’ guilt ! “Trebles all round”, as they used to say here abouts.

Christopher Peter
Christopher Peter
2 years ago

A “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that doesn’t seem to care too much about truth and doesn’t achieve real reconciliation? Sounds about right.
Incidentally, this story just adds to the already long list of reasons that the oft-promoted reparations for slavery would be such a terrible idea: they wouldn’t be the end but just the beginning, would not achieve closure nor appease the grievance industry. Admit guilt and reap the whirlwind.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

George Orwell must currently be kicking himself in his grave that he didn’t give Oceania a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”.

Tim Pot
Tim Pot
2 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

I suspect even he thought that pushing ‘the suspension of disbelief’ required to read his book too far.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

Are ethnic minorities allowed to be anything other than stooges of greedy white liberals?

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

They got a cool £4billion for completely untested , almost certainly fake, allegations of sexual abuse .Hardly stooges of greedy white liberals . They collude , native Canadians and white liberals,one with the other .

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
2 years ago

Prof. Tom Flanagan taught Political Science at the University of Calgary while I was a student there. I took a few Poli Sci option classes, although I was a History major.

Justin Trudeau’s ‘surfergate’ scandal was the most amusing so far in that milquetoast charlatan’s misbegotten career.

Last edited 2 years ago by Derek Bryce
burke schmollinger
burke schmollinger
2 years ago

There’s nobody the New Progressives hate more than the Old Progressives.
On that note, it’s amazing to see the New Progressives tear down the people who dedicated their lives to building and running schools in some of the poorest parts of the continent.
The anti-Christian zeal of the Canadian authorities, and culture generally, has been eye opening in its intensity.

Z 0
Z 0
2 years ago

I call it neo-progressivism. Its base is among the cultural, economic and educational elites (with the earliest and deepest penetration in the most elite colleges), and neo-progressives often find the working class a bit unsavory.
Basically, it’s top down progressivism, rather than bottom up. So the messages are kind of confused – decrying privilege while in practice not relieving themselves of their own advantages, instead focusing mostly on using symbolic actions, or taking down scapegoats via exaggerated infractions, or using other people’s money for often ineffective programs to relieve their own guilt.
One other difference is disdain for things like free speech (ie: willingness to allow voices they disagree with to be heard). It’s cheaper to suppress free speech from “other people”, than to give up their own privileged status.
And – with all of that said – most of them are decent, well-meaning people who genuinely care and want to “do the right thing”. They are not intentionally evil! Their perspectives are just corrupted by some pernicious reframings and partial information, and the subtle but powerful allure of being told that you have the unquestionable moral high ground, and anybody who disagrees with you is not only wrong, but immoral.
I would support them stewing in their own juices and learning the hard way what outcomes resort from applying their toolsets to the human experience, but as the elite they feel entitled (and morally obligated) to force the entire society down the same path.

Philip May
Philip May
2 years ago

The grievance industry in Canada is alive and well.
We do live in a post-truth society.
Google:
MMIWG final report quietly altered after CBC inquired about errors
Kudos to UnHerd for this article.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip May

Thank-you for this link, it was extremely interesting. What I did notice, however, was that, although the victims were identified as indigenous, the perpetrators were not identified it was just left for the reader to assume where their biases led them.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

I read about this a few weeks ago in the Dorchester Review. I assumed this meant that the official line would change, not so! Shocking. There are still hundreds of unmarked graves of children apparantly, even though there is no conclusive evidence of even a single one.

Jp Merzetti
Jp Merzetti
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

Maybe it’s just me or maybe it’s just too obvious. How about actually digging up even just one grave? Just for evidence? Just to have something other than conjecture to go on?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Jp Merzetti

Would that not offend someone somehow?

Tim Pot
Tim Pot
2 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

It may also prove there are no graves, and so the gravy train would derail.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Reminiscent of the ‘satanic abuse’ fantasy a few years back, or more recently ‘Nick’ and the Westminster paedo ring. In an age of so-called fact-checking, most journalists are no longer interested in establishing the truth, just in producing sensational copy for their preferred outrage filter. Bravo to Mr Flanagan.

David Murphy
David Murphy
2 years ago

Notice that this article is published in a non-Canadian journal. Canada’s dailies are now subsidized by the Trudeau government, with strings attached, and internet providers have been frightened into toeing the (P)party-line, soon to be legally bound to that ‘truth’ via Bill C-11. Canada has become a non-liberal democratic backwater.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Murphy
Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 years ago

The Woking Class that has usurped power throughout Western democracies has zero moral compass. This is not the ‘dumb decade’ but the ‘destruction of democracy decade’. It is profoundly depressing to witness the outputs of thousands of years of civilisation and human development, generally for the better, being ruthlessly dismantled along with basic truth. I fear this will be unintended legacy our children will inherit. ‘Truth & Reconciliation’ – what a cynical inversion of today’s reality!

Ruud van Man
Ruud van Man
2 years ago

The victimhood and grievance narrative that is currently torturing so many aspects of Western life is very damaging. It seriously undermines social cohesion and it needs to be firmly challenged.

David Schulze
David Schulze
2 years ago

It is extraordinary how much is wrong or misleading in this article. Right of the top, Flanagan’s figure of 68 churches “vandalised or even burned to the ground” may be accurate but elides the fact that only 20 churches suffered from arson and only a few (very regrettably) burned to the ground.
It is heartless to say that there were no “missing children” despite the fact that thousands of First Nations and Inuit children who were sent to residential schools never returned to their parents. While Flannagan blandly claims that “some children died at residential schools of diseases such as tuberculosis, just as they did in their home communities,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that Aboriginal children in residential schools died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population. It identified 3,200 deaths in residential schools and found that for most of the schools’ history, the practice was not to send the bodies of students who died at schools to their home communities. While Flanagan claims that “children were carefully tracked in the residential school system,” the TRC found that for1/3 of deaths, the government and the schools did not even record the name of the student who died and for just under 1/2, the government and the schools did not record the cause of death.
The legalistic argument that “it wasn’t until 1920 that school attendance was made compulsory for Indian children” has nothing to do with lived reality that saw Indian agents and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police enforce attendance to differing degrees in different regions by using the threat of arrest or the withholding of relief or rations. As Flanagan well knows, the administration of Indian Affairs in Canada was frequently marked by violations of legal rules adopted by the Canadian state, or by enforcement of rules that had no legal authority. Thus, for half a century, the coming and going of First Nations members on prairie reserves was controlled by a pass system enforced by Indian agents though it had no basis in the Indian Act.
Flanagan seems nostalgic for an era “prior to 1990,” when “residential schools enjoyed largely favourable coverage in the media,” yet the subsequent accounts of sexual and severe physical abuse were not isolated incidents but repeated by literally tens of thousands of survivors in testimony that was not accepted uncritically but tested before adjudicators in countless individual hearings. Despite lacklustre investigations and prosecutions, former residential school employees who admitted to dozens of victims of sexual abuse were sent to prison, one of them referred to by the sentencing judge as a sexual sadist.
Flanagan’s account of historic abuse as a “money-maker” refers first, to class actions that have often reduced rather than extended federal government liability by keeping cases out of court and even restricting how victims can seek redress, a benefit given that there are no limitations periods for sexual abuse in Canada. (Let us also note the irony of Flanagan denouncing the settlement of litigation by government after the numerous cases in which he was the government’s paid expert witness against Aboriginal parties.) Second, to describe as a “money-maker” the need for government to fund the search for and protection of sites where residential school students were buried shows Flanagan’s disregard for the humanity of those who died there and their families: who else but the federal government should pay for this after they took the children away, failed to return their bodies and saw to their burial in unmarked graves?

Reinhard Berndt
Reinhard Berndt
1 year ago

At risk of being vilified by the herd I have a few questions, about the KRS “findings” that, I think, should be asked and looked into. 1. Did GPR find bodies or just indications of underground anomalies? 2. Unmarked graves have been known, and documented by the church already. Markers, it is felt, deteriorated over time. Why is this being called genocide? 3. I am sure there were abuses in the residential school program as there has been in many other programs and professions worldwide. Why is the “whole” being painted by the “actions of the few”? Doesn’t this go against the “woke culture” of kindness and forgiveness? 4. Is it possible that the KRS area being the confluence of two rivers, the Thompson and Shuswap, over the millenia been the collecting grounds of many bones, human, child, animal, etc…. over the thousands of years and to date? It stands to reason many GPR anomalies will be found. Why just focus on the “unmarked grave site” which has clearly been known to be a gravesite for many years? 5. When can we expect exhumation of “anomalies” in not only the gravesite but surrounding areas as well?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

Well, it is said that money is the root of all evil, so one doesn’t have to look too hard to find the incentive which drives much of this, whereas those deciding that the quickest and most ‘virtuous’ way of avoiding trouble by paying up or paying for commissions and reports are not doing so with their own money.

Jp Merzetti
Jp Merzetti
2 years ago

As with so many things, the history of residential schools, the mistreatment and abuse, the fallout and the aftershock on aboriginal communities, bears enough real and actual provable truth from records and testimonies that do exist. We know this, Or at least we should.
So the subterfuge, the blame game, the dance around the flagpole, and the sleight of hand shell game all serve to get us absolutely nowhere, while much money changes hands, and much of the assistance disappears, that many aboriginal communities still need, while they wallow in despair and endless inconsequence – in spite of that money.
As with so many things when politics moves in and takes over, we find that it is the people down at the bottom who suffer the most. And especially while so many who enjoy high privileges cannot even imagine that reality. These are the things that can shame a nation, while awaiting some real and genuine form of leadership to show up.
The reason I still call Wenjack, Charlie – is because that was the title of Willie Dunn’s unspeakably heartbreaking ballad describing that long walk up the train tracks, just wanting to go home, that I first heard back in 1970, off his Ballad of Crowfoot album. Something sacred happened even in the first listening. Something handed on. Something of substance, strong enough to last a lifetime.
It is for reasons like this that I remain critical of the political and the correct, that often enough get in the way of the evidence of the impact on the people most affected. So why should these ‘graves’ remain symbolic? Why can’t they either emerge in reality, or dissipate into something different than that, if that’s what they actually are? And why is this not important enough to generate as real factual evidence, considering what may be at stake? Or have we now just taken up some form of gossip, some empty hand waving desultory gesture, just enough effort to move the needle past the flatline?

Sandra Currie
Sandra Currie
2 years ago

So, it’s not true because the parents didn’t report their children missing to the people who forcibly took them and you’re using that to discount their reality. Try listening to some residential school survivors instead of the voices in your head.