People gather at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021. CNS photo/Dennis Owen, Reuters

Search for truth over graves is elusive

  • September 7, 2023

The absence of human remains following excavations at Manitoba’s former Pine Creek Indian Residential school has attracted international attention in the form of a highly critical article in the New York Post.

“After two years of horror stories about the alleged mass graves of Indigenous children at residential schools across Canada, a series of recent excavations at suspected sites has turned up no human remains,” New York Post investigative reporter Dana Kennedy wrote in an Aug. 31 story. “Some academics and politicians say it’s further evidence that the stories are unproven.”

Kennedy followed up with a quote from retired Université de Montréal historian Jacques Rouillard calling reports of mass Indigenous graves in Canada a “hoax” is “too strong.”

“But there are too many falsehoods about this issue with no evidence,” Rouillard is quoted.

The New York reporter’s interest was piqued by the Aug. 18 acknowledgement of Manitoba Chief Derek Nepinak that this summer’s excavations of 14 sites underneath Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church came up empty. In fact, Kennedy, whose credits and experience include numerous scoops and two decades as a news correspondent for CNN, ABC, Fox and MSNBC, has been following the Indigenous mass graves story since at least May 2022.

She reported on the anniversary of claims that 215 bodies had been discovered at the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C. Her story was headlined, “‘Biggest fake news story in Canada’: Kamloops mass grave debunked by academics.”

No one aware of the sordid story of the Indian Residential School system, or the broader facts of Canada’s long mistreatment of its Indigenous peoples, legitimately denies our shameful past. There’s zero evidence of a national urge to airbrush such history. But after a period of outpouring of hard truths, demand is mounting for clarifying questions and answers. The justification offered is a stated desire for a truly accurate historical picture.

Canadian journalist Jonathon Kay, a former editor-in-chief of the Walrus magazine and now senior editor for the online publication Quillette, exemplified that spirit when he tweeted Kennedy’s Aug. 31 story on X (formerly known as Twitter). Kay commented: “There’s a whole sub-category of Canadian news that can only be published outside Canada. When it comes to these topics, it sometimes feels like living in Belarus or Cuba … where there are these things that everybody knows to be true, but no one is allowed to say out loud.”

In fact, skeptical voices within Canada about the claims of mass Indigenous children’s graves grew bolder over the summer. They included Calgary Bishop Emeritus Fred Henry’s recent demand reported by The Catholic Register for proof a single child was murdered under Church auspices. From his hospital bed, the octogenarian cleric said his brother bishops must break their silence and begin pressing the federal government for such proof.

Henry’s urging came in the wake of Kimberly Murray, the Trudeau government’s special advisor on the deaths and mass graves at the former Indian Residential schools, calling in an interim report for “denialism” of  such horrors to become a Criminal Code offence. Then Justice Minister David Lametti committed to exploring such a change in federal law, which Murray and others equate to German legislation against denial of the Holocaust. Lametti was dropped from cabinet in the most recent shuffle and there is no indication of work beginning to criminalize questioning of the mass grave narratives.

However, such questioning seems to be occurring with increasing frequency despite any potential for it to become an indictable offense. Fifteen months ago, National Post writer Terry Glavin was virtually alone among Canadian journalists in breaking the apparent omerta that prevailed in Canadian mainstream media on the issue. In a May 26, 2022 critique headlined “The year of the graves: How the world’s media got it wrong on mass graves,” Glavin separated the shame of the Indian Residential School system from the accusations of disappeared and murdered Indigenous children.

That didn’t stop Pope Francis from passing a mid-air sound-bite judgment of “genocide” against Canada as he flew back to Rome last summer from his pilgrimage of penance for the Catholic Church’s role in Indian Residential school abuses. But in the ensuing year, as no bodies have appeared despite more than $300 million committed by Ottawa for mass graves searches, there has been a steady press for either evidence or acknowledgement that the original claims were premature, overstated or simply false.

The cautionary note accompanying such calls, of course, is that absence of proof is not proof of absence. The fact no bodies have been found doesn’t mean there are no bodies to find. For independent researcher Nina Green, that caveat is met with a consistent deployment of evidence rather than the more direct approach of those such as Conrad Black who recently dismissed the whole topic as effectively bordering on a fraud originating in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report.

In one of her now anticipated mass e-mails sent to 95 recipients across Canada following the mid-August Pine Creek excavation story, Green used the word “evidence” 13 times in her text. While she is deeply critical of the way many of the claims are made about Indigenous mass graves, she is also punctilious about relying on archival documents, publicly available records, and eyewitness testimony among other verifiable sources. Her crisply logical approach is exemplified by the Pine Creek follow-up e-mail in which she pointed out that the absence of bodies in the basement of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church should have been a forgone conclusion. The federal government’s own special advisor on Indigenous graves had already said as much.

Kimberly Murray told the Standing Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples on 21 March 2023 that ‘The children aren’t missing; they’re buried in the cemeteries’. If the children are buried in the cemeteries (which provincial death records by the hundreds affirm they are), then they obviously weren’t murdered and clandestinely buried in the church basement at Pine Creek,” Green wrote.

She added: “The RCMP conducted a year-long investigation at Pine Creek prior to the excavation of the church basement, and found no evidence of anything nefarious.

After a year of interviewing community members, conducting surveys, and following up on leads, the RCMP has not uncovered evidence at this time related to criminal activity specific to the reflections detected at the site.”

Having laid the groundwork, so to speak, she then advanced to a part of the mass graves narrative edifice that, as Jonathon Kay noted in his X tweet, Canadians are almost paranoid about razing.

“The memories of Elders and Survivors are fallible, and so far none of the atrocities they claim to have witnessed at residential schools has been independently verified. Nor has a single child they claim went missing from a residential school been independently verified as having actually gone missing,” Green said.

“For all these reasons and many more, the results of the excavation of the church basement at Pine Creek were entirely predictable, and far from establishing that these sorts of efforts to find illusory unmarked graves should be Indigenous-led, they have proved the opposite. These investigations should be conducted by the RCMP, who have expertise in this area,” she contended.

Green, who herself is extremely personally publicity shy and has politely declined repeated requests to be interviewed by The Catholic Register and the B.C. Catholic, put her finger there on the real crux of the issue. For non-Indigenous Canadians, by and large, the claims of mass deaths and mass graves are forensic matters subject to the procedures of criminal investigation, evidence gathering and proof beyond reasonable doubt.

From an Indigenously acceptable perspective, however, those very hallmarks of legalism are historically sources of suppression and oppression, especially at the hands of elements of the RCMP. More, many Indigenous leaders make clear repeatedly that the search for children in graves is not about bodily validation of that mistreatment. It’s about mourning the dead: dead children, that is, lost and too often forgotten ancestors.

Those are two diametrically opposed ways of encountering the world. Arguably, they were brought together in confusion by the very fact that the Kamloops “discovery” of spring 2021 was at least partially based on forensic, archeological, evidence gathering machinery in the empirically-based form of ground penetrating radar.

The result is not so much “fake news” as the New York Post headline called it, but more two worldviews trying to meet in a middle neither of them is sure can possibly exist.

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