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Looking Back at the ‘Unmarked Graves’ Social Panic of 2021

A new book tries to explain how millions of Canadians became convinced that the bodies of 215 ‘missing’ Indigenous children had been discovered in British Columbia.

· 12 min read
Looking Back at the ‘Unmarked Graves’ Social Panic of 2021
People watch as a convoy of truckers and other vehicles travel in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, June 5, 2021. Flickr.

On May 27, 2021, a moral panic took hold of Canada, following an announcement by the Chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (a First Nation in British Columbia, formerly known as the Kamloops Indian Band) indicating that ground-penetrating radar (GPR) had located the remains of 215 “missing children” in an apple orchard. These allegedly represented “undocumented deaths” of students who’d attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which had closed 52 years earlier.

Canada’s Residential School system, established in the nineteenth century to educate and culturally assimilate Indigenous children—sometimes at boarding schools that isolated them from their communities—had already become notorious in the public mind, and so many Canadians found these new claims to be credible. In the hysteria that ensued, no one stopped to consider that what the GPR data actually showed wasn’t graves, let alone bodies, but rather soil dislocations that could be caused by any number of phenomena, including irrigation ditches.

Indeed, the young anthropologist who conducted the GPR search later added a note of caution, warning that only forensic investigation could confirm that these were indeed burials. But by then, it was too late. Politicians and media seized on the initial announcement as Canada’s George Floyd moment. Claims of “mass unmarked graves” and “burials of missing children” dominated the story-line that ricocheted around Canada; and, indeed, much of the world. Several other First Nations that had at one time been the site of Residential Schools quickly hired their own anthropologists armed with GPR scanners, and duly announced similar discoveries.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set the tone of the public response on May 30, 2021, by ordering Canadian flags to be flown at half-mast on all federal buildings, so as to honour the “215 children whose lives were taken at the Kamloops Residential School.”

The Kamloops Indian Residential School, c. 1930. Colorized.

This choice of language elevated these possible burials to definitive evidence of lethal foul play—manslaughter, or even murder. In a development that was unprecedented in Canadian history, flags remained at half-mast until Remembrance Day, November 11, and were returned to normal height only after the Assembly of First Nations, a lobby group representing the leadership of Indigenous communities, gave its approval.

At least 68 Christian churches were vandalized or burnt to the ground during this period—the majority of the latter being Roman Catholic—a tally that passed 80 by the summer of 2023. Many of these were historic church buildings, a priceless heritage still used and revered by Indigenous people (27% of whom declared themselves Catholic in Canada’s 2021 Census). The apparent pretext was that the Kamloops Indian Residential School had been run by a Catholic religious order, as had 43% of the country’s Residential Schools.

Think of the outrage in the media if that many synagogues or mosques had been vandalized and burned. Yet the attacks on these Christian churches passed with only mild criticism, and even with approbation, in online comment sections.

Public figures who excused the church burnings and vandalism
Public figures such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Niki Ashton excused the recent church burnings and acts of vandalism targeting historical Canadian symbols.

An article in The New York Times was typical of media commentary about the unmarked graves. Published under the headline, “Horrible History: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada” on May 28, 2021, it informed readers—incorrectly, as we shall see—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.”

At the end of 2021, the discovery of the “unmarked graves” was chosen by Canadian newspaper editors as the “news story of the year”—even though no actual graves had yet been found. 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.”

A Media-Fueled Social Panic Over Unmarked Graves
Not a single body has been unearthed. But Canadians wouldn’t know it from the false information reported in The New York Times.

It’s now been almost three years since the story first broke. During that time, no formerly unknown graves have been found at any of the locations identified by GPR scans, Kamloops included. Most of these “soil anomalies” have not even been excavated, and so what, if anything, lies beneath the surface remains unknown. In the few cases where excavations have taken place, no burials related to Residential Schools have been found.

It’s now been almost three years since Canadians were told that 215 child graves had been found. In fact, not a single grave—let alone actual human remains—has been found at any of the locations identified by GPR.

Most recently, the Minegoziibe Anishinabe First Nation in Manitoba undertook a four-week excavation of the basement of a church built on the site of the Pine Creek Residential School. Notwithstanding local lore about secret burials that had taken place, the Chief announced that careful work by archaeologists from Brandon University had turned up no remains.

In other cases, GPR research was conducted in whole or in part on known community cemeteries located near former Residential Schools. It would hardly be surprising to find burial sites in a cemetery. But since excavations have not been conducted in these cases, it’s unknown whether these potential unmarked graves contain the bodies of children, let alone students from Residential Schools. (Media have generally failed to differentiate between claimed burial sites at Residential Schools and known but neglected cemeteries, further confusing the public reception of harrowing allegations.)

One reason this social panic unfolded as it did is that Canadians had already been led to believe that there was some enormous number of Indigenous children who’d simply vanished—“missing children” whose tragic fates had now been discovered. That claim, too, was always untrue.

This concept was popularized by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose officials spoke of up to 4,200 Indigenous children who were sent to Residential Schools but never returned to their parents. It is absolutely true that children died at Residential Schools of diseases such as tuberculosis, just as they did in their home communities. And the fate of some children may have been forgotten by their own distant relatives with the passage of generations. But “forgotten” is not “missing.” The myth 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. The documentation exists, but the TRC did not avail themselves of it.

Amid the moral panic that began in mid-2021, the “unmarked graves” were presumed to be populated by these “missing children.” Lurid tales of torture and murder, of babies thrown into furnaces and hanging from meat hooks, became popularized. Yet Indigenous parents, no less than other parents, love their children and certainly would have noticed if they went away to school and never came back. There is no record of parents filing complaints with police or other authorities about children who simply vanished—even though there are documented parents’ complaints about harsh discipline (documented complaints that, it should be added, were addressed by school authorities in favour of the parents’ concerns).

Notwithstanding larger debates about the assimilationist mission of these schools, and episodes of abuse, their operation was governed by bureaucratic protocols. As in schools all over the world, each child received an identifying file number upon admission, which was used for administrative purposes.

The federal Department of Indian Affairs also kept close track of students because it paid a per-capita subsidy to Residential Schools. It reviewed admission records meticulously because it didn’t want to pay for the non-Indigenous students who were sometimes enrolled in such schools. For their own part, the Residential Schools were equally motivated to keep track of students because their income depended on such subsidies.

Media stories about Indian Residential Schools are often accompanied by the claim that 150,000 Indigenous children were “forced to attend” such institutions. In fact, scholars generally agree that more students attended day schools located on Indigenous reserves than went away to board at Residential Schools. Children were not required to go to Residential School unless no day school was available. Moreover, a large number didn’t go to any school at all. And it wasn’t until 1920, decades after the Residential School system had been established, that attendance at either day school or Residential School was made compulsory for Indigenous children. And even then, enforcement was often lax. Even by 1944, estimates indicate, upwards of 40% of Indigenous children were not enrolled in any school whatsoever.

For each student who did attend Residential School, an application form signed by a parent or other guardian was required. Numerous specimens have been preserved and can be viewed in online government archives. Moreover, many Indigenous parents saw Residential Schools as the best option available for their children. Cree artist Kent Monkman’s famous painting, The Scream, showing missionaries and police snatching infants from the arms of Indian mothers at gunpoint is a fever dream of the modern Canadian imagination. It’s not even close to an accurate depiction of historical reality, even if taken metaphorically.

Kent Monkman’s The Scream: Images that define atrocities
Some paintings have become the defining images of a social or political catastrophe. But can art really shape the narrative of war and atrocity, asks Karen Burshtein.

How could this moral panic have gained such wide currency among political, media, and educational elites? One answer is that the alleged perpetrators were Christian clergy and teachers, and the hysteria channelled an ideologically fashionable type of anti-Christian sentiment. The Prime Minister seemed to appeal to this when he said the church-burnings were “understandable.” Another explanation is that the moral panic fit with the progressive narrative that Canada, no less than the United States, is a murderous bastion of “white supremacy.”

Prior to 1990, ironically, Residential Schools enjoyed largely favourable coverage in the mainstream Canadian media, which often reported positive testimonials from students who’d attended them. Alumni of the Residential Schools made up most of the emerging First Nations elite. And middle-class Indigenous people would often credit Residential Schools for their success. Even as late as 2008, the CBC was reporting that “a residential school in the Northwest Territories made a lasting, positive impact on its alumni, who gathered in Yellowknife over the weekend to pay tribute to the school’s founder.”

Things had begun to change, however, when an Indigenous chief named Phil Fontaine spoke on a popular CBC television show about how he’d suffered sexual abuse at a Residential School. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples wrote critically about the schools, and several influential historians published books in the same vein. Perhaps most importantly, lawyers launched multiple class actions on behalf of Residential School “survivors” (as they were now called), 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 CAN$5-billion in compensation was paid to about 80,000 claimants. In 2008, Mr. Harper gave a public apology for the very existence of Residential Schools. 

He might have thought that the compensation payments and his apology would mark the end of the story, but instead they became the beginning of a new chapter. 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 short notice. The TRC held emotional public hearings around the country, at which former students were invited to tell their stories without fact-checking or scrutiny. Many had already made claims for financial compensation, with the amount paid being proportional to the degree of sexual and physical abuse claimed. In 2015, the TRC concluded that Residential Schools amounted to “cultural genocide.” In time, the adjective “cultural” would be dropped.

By 2019, Justin Trudeau would be adopting genocide terminology to describe Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people more generally, including the fate of the group now called MMIWG—Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. And so, by the time the 2021 “unmarked graves” social panic emerged, the far-fetched idea that Canada is a literal genocide state wasn’t new. In summer 2022, Pope Francis made a visit to Canada, after which he also started using the G-word. And the House of Commons gave apparent “unanimous consent” to a previously rejected motion denouncing Residential Schools as a form of genocide.

House of Commons gives unanimous consent to recognizing residential schools as genocide
A House of Commons motion from NDP MP Leah Gazan calling on the federal government to recognize Canada’s Indian residential schools as genocide passed with unanimous consent Thursday.

That resolution (which had been brought forward in the disorderly atmosphere that follows the end of Question Period, when many MPs are moving around the House) had no legal impact. Nevertheless, nothing was done to reverse it, and it has since reinforced the genocide narrative in the eyes of the media and public opinion. If a tale is supported, or accepted, by all parties in the House of Commons, many voters will understandably say: How can it be false?

But it is a strange kind of genocide that allows the ostensibly targeted population to increase rather than decrease. It’s estimated that upon Canada’s founding in 1867, the country’s population included approximately 140,000 Indigenous people. In the 2021 census, that number stood at about 1.8 million—a roughly 12-fold increase.

But the point of the genocide claims wasn’t to convey a historically accurate understanding of Canadian history; it was a political gesture aimed at producing maximum emotive effect. The twentieth century saw genuine physical genocides of Armenians, Jews, Ukrainians, and Rwandans, among others, episodes in which millions of people were slaughtered. By the use of genocide terminology, Canada has been implicitly cast into that same category.

With the G-word also comes a family of D-words—denial, denialism, denialists—terms that have been weaponized to intimidate anyone in Canada who publicly notes that the claims made in mid-2021 weren’t supported by facts. Some academics have tried to suggest that anyone who dares scrutinize the 2021-era “unmarked graves” claims should be seen as morally comparable to actual holocaust deniers such as Ernst Zundel, men who rooted their contemptible claims in hateful delusions and conspiracy theories.

Yet attempts to strike broad comparisons between Residential Schools and actual historical genocides were always nonsensical to begin with. Whatever one may think of the assimilationist purposes of these schools, there is no evidence that they were scenes of mass murder, or indeed of any murder.

The same Member of Parliament who led the charge to denounce Residential Schools as genocide has also promoted legislation that would cast Residential-School “denialism”—a vaguely defined category that might even include this essay—as a form of illegal hate speech. Marc Miller, then Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, immediately supported Gazan’s proposal (though it has since come to nothing). “Residential school denialism attempts to hide the horrors that took place in these institutions,” his office said.

In Canada, Asking for Evidence Now Counts as ‘Denialism’
Sensational 2021 claims that unmarked Indigenous child graves had been discovered in British Columbia now seem doubtful. But saying so may soon be a criminal offence

Even more significant was a statement by David Lametti, then the Minister of Justice, to the effect that he was “open” to considering “legal mechanisms as a way to combat Residential School denialism”—as recommended by Kimberly Murray, the woman who’d been named as the “Independent Special Interlocutor on Unmarked Graves.”

Canada, then, is already far down the path of not just accepting, but legally entrenching, a narrative of mass murder for which no serious evidence has been proffered. Canadians have been led to believe that both Catholic and Protestant missionaries quite literally tortured and killed hundreds, if not thousands of Indigenous children, then hid their bodies through secret burials (often pressing other Indigenous children into service to dig the graves, according to one popular strain of urban legend); and that generations of religious authorities, police officials, civil servants, and elected politicians have somehow conspired to prevent this horrible truth from coming out—until a set of as-yet-uninvestigated soil dislocations were discovered in 2021. Who’s the real conspiracy theorist here?

It’s hard to see this movement as anything except a sort of collectively experienced bout of national political madness—one that, almost three years later, Canadian public figures still have failed to directly reckon with, presumably because doing so would require them to admit their own complicity in amplifying the original hysteria.

Such a reckoning will indeed be painful, not to mention politically mortifying, for all concerned. But it cannot be put off forever.

Adapted, with permission, from the newly published book, Grave Error: How The Media Misled Us (and the Truth about Residential Schools).

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