There Are No Secret Graves

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht

Canada’s flag has been flying at half-mast since the shocking discovery of the bodies of 215 indigenous children, who died under sinister circumstances at the Kamloops Residential School, and were secretly buried in the area known as the “apple orchard”. Chief Roseanne Casimir announced to a shocked Canada that “knowledge keepers” in her community had long known of these secret burials, with children as young as six being wakened in the night to help bury the bodies of their compatriots at the school.

This is indeed a very shocking story – perhaps the most shocking story in the history of this country since Confederation. It was made even more shocking by the announcement that these weren’t just graves – they were “mass graves” – bringing to mind the genocide of the Holocaust. If true, these horrific claims certainly justifies the lowering of the flag, and the incredible outpouring of outrage, shock and shame from almost every Canadian citizen. If true, Canada deserves its newfound reputation as a place where the darkest genocide took place.

Except that every part of this story – except for the fact that the flag remains lowered – is completely false. In fact, it looks like Canada’s reputation will be more as an international laughingstock for believing these wild stories than as a nation where genocide occurred.

Because the “tens of thousands of murdered and missing indigenous children, secretly buried in mass graves” is part of an old conspiracy theory that originated mainly from the tall tales of four unfortunate indigenous addicts, and told to a troubled and gullible de-frocked ex-minister years ago on Vancouver’s skid row. Those fantastical tales gave birth to a conspiracy theory that “knowledge keepers” and indigenous leaders swallowed whole, and proceeded to spread through their communities. It seems that Canadians have now fallen for those same myths.

Chief Casimir was not telling the truth when she announced to a shocked country that 215 bodies had been found. The ground detection radar cannot find bodies. The junior anthropologist who conducted the search had to correct the chief, explaining that the radar can only detect soil disturbances. Those “disturbances” might be graves, they might just as easily be badger holes. Only excavation can conclusively determine what, if anything, is buried there.

The chief knew that, but deliberately sensationalized her announcement by claiming that it was bodies that were found. The chief then refused all further press conferences, and proceeded to lock up the area where the bodies were supposedly found, making it inaccessible to the media. No efforts have been made to date to do any excavation.

The media – as well as our political leaders – meekly complied, and asked no questions. But not before some creative journalist completely invented the “mass graves” claim. It was completely untrue, although that “mass graves” media invention is still being carelessly used by many publications

But it was in Casimir’s claims about knowledge keepers “knowing” about children from the schools being secretly buried by fellow students, “some as young as six” that the chief went completely off the rails. What the chief and those knowledge keepers were doing was repeating the crazy claims of the troubled ex-minister described above.

He claims that 50-100,000 indigenous children were either murdered, or died in droves of disease at the residential schools across Canada, and are buried behind church walls, and all over the country. He has been making these claims since the 1990s. His wild ravings include tales of priests throwing children from balconies to their deaths, murdering students in front of their classmates, and punishing children by throwing snakes into their tubs while they were bathing. He puts forward the claim that the Queen and Prince Philip walked up to the Kamloops school unaccompanied. The Queen, after making one child kiss her boot, took the children for a picnic, and then abducted ten of the children. All of these outlandish claims can be found by a simple Google search. It is not necessary to repeat more of the claims, because their complete absurdity is obvious. It is perfectly clear that the ex-minister is either mentally unbalanced, or malicious.

And yet there is no shortage of people who have been willing to take his preposterous claims at face value. The eminent scholar, Noam Chomsky, opined that the ex-minister should get the Nobel prize. The ex-minister’s film “Unrepentant” (free on YouTube) has won international awards, and “earned” rave reviews. And many other normally sensible people have also endorsed him. In fact, even mainstream media, including the CBC, have spread his twisted ravings coast to coast. One claim that seems to emanate from the ex-minister – that an electric chair was used to electrocute children at the infamous St. Anne’s Residential School – is an example. This fantastical story has been treated by many otherwise respectable news organizations, as if it is quite plausible. It isn’t. It is crazy talk. (The truth is that “electric chair” was in fact just a normal school science project.) Probably.

Why obviously false claims have been treated as legitimate, just because they come from “knowledge keepers” or chiefs, and why the ravings of an obviously disturbed defrocked minister are shown a respect they don’t deserve, are questions beyond the scope of this short article. My point here is that a country’s flag should not fly at half mast for months based on urban legends, conspiracy theories and tall tales.

It is not an urban legend that there are “missing children” as claimed by the TRC. However, it is most likely that these are mainly children who died from the usual diseases of the day, had proper burials, and had their deaths properly documented. But there is nothing sinister about the fact that that many graves and cemeteries go untended, and nature makes them “unmarked graves”.

The true history of the children’s deaths must be revealed. There is currently much work being done in putting names to the missing children. This involves painstakingly searching through government, church and band records. The federal government originally allotted $30,000,000 for this work. That sum has now ballooned to $321,000,000 after Chief Casimir’s sensational announcement. (The fact that half a century ago some federal bureaucrat decided that residential school death records were taking up too much space and had to be destroyed, has made the work immensely more difficult.) But this work must continue.

Because it is important to put names to all of the children who died at residential schools. The parents, grandparents, and indigenous communities – all Canadians – are entitled to that information. That work is now in progress, and Canadians want that the work to continue.

But we don’t need unfounded allegations of genocide and murder – accusations made on zero evidence. And we don’t need unfounded rumours and urban myths.

It is most likely that children sadly died of disease, and were properly buried in cemeteries that were subsequently left untended. What is least likely of all is that children died under mysterious circumstances, and were secretly buried by six year olds. There is simply no real evidence of such a thing happening. Conspiracy theories, rumours and urban legends don’t count as evidence. The repetition of a troubled person’s tall tales are worth nothing, regardless of whether they are spread by “knowledge keepers” or anyone else.

Let’s put the flags back up.

 

Brian Giesbrecht, is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a retired Manitoba judge.