A year ago, Canada was thrown into shock and shame by media reports of 215 unmarked graves being discovered at an Indian Residential School [IRS] site at Kamloops, British Columbia. This story was followed by others from across the country reporting on other unmarked graves being discovered at other IRS sites. Canada Day was a very different event last year, as the nation tried to come to terms with what it was being told, and the government quickly introduced a new national holiday to commemorate the history of Indigenous people in Canada.
In the past few months, other media outlets have begun to cast doubt on the original claims made following the original Kamloops story, using headlines like: “How the world’s media got it wrong on residential school graves”. Suddenly there was a deep division between those who sought justice for the dead children, and those who they called ‘denialists’, rather along the lines of Holocaust deniers. It was, and is, an extremely sensitive and emotional issue. If there is to be genuine reconciliation between the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the wider population, it has to be based on truth, on historical facts and research. So, what are the facts as we know them right now?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published a multi-volume report on their investigation into the IRS system in 2015, and one of the main findings was that, so far as they could judge, around 3,201 children had died throughout the era of the IRS, and that number might possibly go as high as over 4,200. No-one can, or should, deny the data, and the federal government has set up a Pathway to Healing fund of many millions of dollars to enable communities to investigate what may have happened to the children from their community who attended an IRS. That work is continuing and will take some time to complete.
The situation is not as simple as many media outlets reported. The TRC statistics themselves, as they admit in their report, are not completely accurate, and the way the findings have been reported has been a product of lazy and unprofessional journalism. What is vitally important, if we are to have truth and reconciliation, is that the true story of each child is documented for each school: how many children died there? Why and how did they die? Where are they buried? More than anything, perhaps, we should find out who they were: not a statistic, not just a name, but a person, with a story, a family, an identity.
But that requires giving up knee jerk emotional responses to dramatic headlines that mislead. It also means giving up cynical revisionism that downplays the true picture of what happened to thousands of children. The truth often lies somewhere in the middle and it is never as simplistic as one side or the other make it. For example, the TRC report on the deaths of the 3,201 children did not find that they all died while attending a Residential school. According to the TRC findings, there is no clear record for where 1,391 of the children died. 832 children died at the schools, while another 418 died at home. The remainder died in hospital, or some other location. The vast majority died of diseases, particularly tuberculosis or some other lung issue. This was typical of the population as a whole, where TB, or Consumption, was a major killer of children until the late 1940’s.
The revisionists point to the fact that no human remains have actually been found at any of the school sites, and that Ground Penetrating Radar cannot positively identify a grave. All of this may be true, but there are still more than 3,000 children buried in various locations around the country. The really damaging aspect of this is the casual misuse of terms in reporting the stories. The graves “discovered” were not new finds, they were known and recorded, but often unmarked. This was partly due to the fact that the original markers were plain wooden crosses that disappeared over time through weathering and other factors.
What is the proper focus now? Every single child who died, went missing, or is unaccounted for needs to be found. Records vary in scope for each school, but they can often be very useful in ascertaining when and where and why children died. For example, the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic was responsible for very many deaths in the country, in the schools, and in communities. No-one can deny that conditions in many schools were horrendous, that there was often not enough food or clothing for the children, that the Indian Department was criminally negligent in funding and supervising the entire IRS system. But we can’t simply generalise and condemn every school alike. The research being conducted now is necessary before any dependable picture emerges.
Using words like “murder”, or implying that unmarked graves were a secret attempt to cover up criminal activity is neither useful nor accurate. We owe it to all the children who attended the IRS system to find the truth of it all, in all its complex and tragic details. What has happened over the last year has not been helpful, has shown no respect to the real boys and girls who lived and died in those institutions. That should be our focus: honour the truth of their experience and then, maybe, we can work our way towards reconciliation.
Thank you for this thoughtful article David. We have talked more than once or twice about the need for the need for this article. From the reading I have done I found it hard to understand how the entire narrative had been directed off course as the lazy journalists took the easy sensational route rather than researching to find something closer to the truth.
A researcher was able to find all but 2 of the “Kamloops 215.” The TRC had a virtually unlimited budget and yet did not do any vestige of any research. Extensive records at all levels of government have been kept for almost two centuries, yet it looks like the TRC chose not to avail itself, or at most did a cursory exploration. The NCTR will NOT give out information (so much for the “truth” part of that enterprise) to anyone who wants to look at records. And don’t give Casimir et al an out. While the initial press release did not contain the words “mass graves”, that is now the characterization that is applied in FN documents. This is an incredibly divisive issue in Canada, and it shouldn’t have become so.