I regularly drive by an elementary school. Like many Canadian schools its fence is festooned with 215 orange plastic ribbons, signifying the 215 Kamloops residential school students who are alleged to have met their death by foul means, and were then secretly buried by priests – with the forced help of children “as young as six”.
Our children see these orange symbols every day, and many are taught that there are thousands of similar Indigenous crime victims buried in unmarked graves across the country. They are told this is a genocide – a genocide essentially committed by their forefathers.
Our children are being misinformed. There is no credible evidence that there is even one residential school student who was killed and secretly buried in this manner – much less the 215, or the “tens of thousands” alleged by Canada’s senior Indigenous leader, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief RoseAnne Archibald.
Since that May 21, 2021 Kamloops announcement no evidence has been presented to prove their claim. They refuse to excavate, or to release the deeply flawed radar report they claimed was evidence.
But there is an excavation now underway in the basement of a Pine Creek Church at Camperville, Manitoba.
Like Kamloops, where there were stories in the community of secretly buried children, there are similar stories at Camperville of clandestine burials in the church basement. There are stories like these in Indigenous communities across the country, and similar searches are taking place.
Some excavations have been done, turning up nothing. (Interestingly, at the search of the former Shubnecadie Indian Residential School, old graves were indeed discovered – but they were graves of Irish immigrants who had been buried there 100 years before the school was built).
There is no credible evidence to support any of these stories about murderous priests and secret burials. Perhaps there has been such an evil priest in some country at some time in history, but there is no historical record in Canada of even one priest, or anyone, murdering or secretly burying a student, much less 215 – or “tens of thousands” of them”. These stories are fiction.
But that doesn’t mean that the stories are not believed. At the Camperville search if remains aren’t found it’s not likely to stop community members from believing the stories. In fact, they will probably announce that they will apply for more federal money to keep searching. That is what happened after both the Shubnecadie and Camsell searches (above). Community members insisted that their stories of secret burials were still true, and someone must have moved the bones.
At Kamloops, they will likely keep insisting that “graves” containing the remains of residential school students are in that apple orchard, even while oddly claiming that the alleged burial site that they made into a tourist park and parking lot is “sacred” so they can’t excavate. (Why that park is “sacred” while the Pine Creek Church apparently is not is anyone’s guess). So, taxpayer-funded searches will continue in other locations across the country, based on these urban legends.
This is not to suggest that Indigenous families and communities who are legitimately searching for burial sites of ancestors (that were lost in time through neglect or otherwise) have fallen prey to this disinformation. It is perfectly understandable that people want to pay homage to long lost ancestors. (Those people can probably find the information they need on Ancestry.ca). However, the searching frenzy is not being driven by them, but by conspiracy theories that residential school students were killed and buried under nefarious circumstances.
The federal government has not only actively encouraged these false beliefs, by lowering flags for months, etc., it has also extravagantly funded these wasteful searches. $320,000,000 has been set aside to fund the searches, with promises of more to come. In fact, former Indigenous Affairs Minister, Marc Miller has virtually guaranteed continued funding for the next decade.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media has failed to ask even the most obvious questions about claims that intelligent journalists know are not true. Accordingly, the claims are becoming more extreme by the day – baseless claims of poisoning, murder, secret burial and genocide of indigenous children. All the while, church leaders keep their heads down and mumble apologies, most journalists choose other topics to write about, and even the Conservatives stay silent.
Canada, we have a problem: Entire Indigenous communities have accepted fiction over fact. These stories about murderous priests are just the latest manifestation of a victimhood paranoia run amuck. People believe stories that are not true.
There is no easy solution here.
One would hope that at some point sensible politicians would step forward and say the obvious: “No, priests did not murder and secretly bury Indigenous children. Yes, residential schools hurt many children, but they also helped others – particularly orphans and neglected children. And some residential school graduates, like Senator James Gladstone, The Honourable Len Marchand, Harold Cardinal and Tomson Highway did spectacularly well. Regardless, apologies and compensation have been made, and Canada must now move on.”
One would hope that responsible journalists would now step up and start asking the questions that they should have asked when the Kamloops announcement about 215 “graves” was made more than two years ago. One would hope that our elected representatives would grow a spine and say “Enough”!
But none of that is happening. Our leadership class and mainstream journalists appear to be afraid to speak up, for fear of offending Indigenous sensibilities. They seem to believe that to show solidarity with them they must pretend to believe in things they know are not true. So they adopt the ostrich position.
The only people who can put an end to this hysteria are the responsible Indigenous leaders. It appears that RoseAnne Archibald will no longer be the AFN leader. She is the one most responsible for advancing patently false claims about “missing children” – insisting not only that “tens of thousands” were deliberately killed, but that “1600 bodies have been recovered” (above). She might be gone now, but her false stories are not.
And those stories are doing real harm to this country. Our children and grandchildren are being taught that they are true. Even more worrisome – an entire generation of Indigenous children are growing up in the belief that their ancestors were murdered and buried in secrecy. And that their fellow Canadians were the criminals who did it to them.
How much damage this misinformation is doing is unknown. Charred churches are likely a small part of what we will see.
The AFN will elect a new National Chief. Hopefully they will elect a leader who shows more responsible leadership than the last one. And with more courage than our weak elected representatives.
Because those 215 orange plastic ribbons tell a false story of anti-Catholic hatred that falsely depicts our largely honourable history.
Our children – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – deserve better.
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy