Some cast doubt on claims of 'mass grave' of indigenous children at Canadian residential school

Canada, Catholic school
Local children of Kahnawake, Quebec stop on May 30, 2021, to view the hundreds of children's shoes placed in front of the St. Francis Xavier Church, as members of the community of the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, Quebec, commemorate the news that a mass grave of 215 Indigenous children was found at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. The remains of 215 Indigenous children have been found buried on school's grounds, which closed in 1978. With the help of a ground-penetrating radar specialist, the stark truth of the preliminary findings came to light -- the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School," said Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc community." To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths," she said in the statement. |

Some have expressed skepticism over a claim that hundreds of unmarked graves of indigenous children were found at former Catholic-run residential schools in Canada that made international headlines and led to widespread vandalism and burning of churches last year after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demanded an apology from Pope Francis.

Last year, a report emerged that claimed there were 215 graves of indigenous children on the property of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, which had closed in 1978.

Jacques Rouillard, professor emeritus in the Department of History of the Université de Montréal, wrote a piece published in the Dorchester Review disputed the Kamloops mass grave claim, noting that during a press conference last July, anthropologist Sarah Beaulieu acknowledged that they did not have confirmation that there were any remains of children at the site.

According to Rouillard, Beaulieu said that there were “probable burials” on the property, with the final answer on whether they are graves not being possible to determine unless or until the land is excavated.

From new research revealed at a July 15 press conference last year, the anthropologist scaled back the potential discovery from 215 to 200 “probable burials.” 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.”

“By never pointing out that it is only a matter of speculation or potentiality, and that no remains have yet been found, governments and the media are simply granting credence to what is really a thesis,” wrote Rouillard. “And all of this is based only on soil abnormalities that could easily be caused by root movements, as the anthropologist herself cautioned in the July 15 press conference.”

Rouillard also noted that another report about an alleged mass grave near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which claimed over 700 unmarked graves, was actually an official cemetery that included the remains of many adults.

The professor also quoted historian Jim Miller of the University of Saskatchewan, who stated that “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 exhumations have not yet begun and no remains have obviously been found. Imaginary stories and emotion have outweighed the pursuit of truth,” added Rouillard.

“On the road to reconciliation, isn’t the best way to seek and tell the whole truth rather than deliberately create sensational myths?”

Journalist Jane Stannus noted in a piece published by The Spectator on Friday that there were several other places in Canada that had been the subject of false rumors of mass graves.

“After the ‘discovery’ in Kamloops, ground-penetrating radar indicated at least 34 similar soil disturbances near Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, where stories of undocumented burials of indigenous children abounded. Excavations over the course of several months found nothing.” 

“Sensational reports likewise came out about unmarked graves near the residential school of Cranbrook, British Columbia. But what initial reports failed to mention was that the remains were in a cemetery still used today — and that the original markers could simply have rotted away, as wooden crosses were often used.”

The news about the purported residential school mass graves sparked a wave of vandalism and arson attacks on Catholic and Protestant churches amid a rise in anti-Christian and anti-Catholic sentiment. 

John Daniel Davidson, a senior editor at The Federalist, noted that in June 2021, after tribal leaders "compared the priests and nuns who ran the boarding schools to Nazis," and "said the discovery was evidence of 'mass murder of indigenous people,' that it was an 'attempted genocide,' a spate of church burnings and vandalism followed.

"Most of them Catholic and some of them more than a century old, were burned to the ground," Davidson added. 

Catholic Church officials issued apologies and vowed to work more with indigenous communities at reconciliation, while politicians demanded more accountability.

At one point, the Canadian prime minister, himself a Catholic, demanded that the pope come to his country and issue a formal apology for the mass graves.

“I have spoken personally directly with His Holiness Pope Francis to press upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil,” Trudeau said last June. “I know that the Catholic Church leadership is looking and very actively engaged in what next steps can be taken.”

In a separate development, Whitney Spearing, the lead investigator looking into claims of potential unmarked graves at the former St. Joseph's Mission School and cemetery, said at a news conference Tuesday (starting at the 41-minute mark) that a combination of devices, including ground-penetrating radar, found 93 "reflections" at the site of the former St. Joseph's Mission School. The site included a cemetery used in the past and in "modern times."

While 43 of the reflections found by the radar are known gravesites, it's yet unknown what the other 50 reflections are. Only excavation can determine what objects are underground and whether they are unmarked graves of indigenous children or something else. 

Follow Michael Gryboski on Twitter or Facebook

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