Like most of the general public last May 2021, when there was an announcement by the Tk’emlups te Seccwepmc band that they had “discovered”, through the use of ground radar, 215 “unmarked graves”, I was taken aback, and a little confused. How is this possible, how could they have gone un-detected for so long?
In a few short days, the discovery and the original news reports began morphing and transitioning, building to a crescendo of evermore outlandish and suspicious headlines. The “unmarked graves” quickly turned into “mass graves”. The allegations captured news eyes from around the world and the international headlines began to follow suit. One of the first, the prestigious New York Times, the liberal media conscious of the United States, reported on the “mass graves” that had been found on the Kamloops Residential school grounds.
The use of the terminology “mass” graves is a tricky one. In most peoples minds and in the current lexicon, it infers criminal activity, the nefarious and clandestine disposal of bodies. It conjures up, in this case, the horrific image of children meeting a brutal and homicidal end. As the months have now turned into a year most of that which was an implied– all those reports that had stirred the loud voices –turns out to be inaccurate and much less than the reports had suggested.
Terry Glavin writing for the National Post, in a recent and well researched article dated May 26th of this year, wrote about the extent and breadth of the misperception. He puts the responsibility for the exaggeration and the inflammatory headlines squarely at the feet of the National press. It was the press he argues that turned the headlines even contrary to the original press releases that had been issued by the various bands at the time. As an example, the Kamloops Band initially spoke of bodies “buried on site”, and it was the press, both television and print, who began to twist the wording to one that was more suitable for them and the headline writing editors. As Glavin points out time has now shown that there was “no mass murder”, “no evidence of mass murder” and “no evidence of concealment”. In fact for those children that died there, they were not returned to their original home for the rather mundane reason of it being a “cost-saving measure”; not to hide what had gone on.
The repercussions and the political and social media churn after the reported “discovery” moved into high gear, and the Liberals who clearly govern by headline could not wait to be seen as pre-eminent keepers of our social and political conscious. They wanted to play to their constituency. Canada Day was cancelled and the flags were put to half-mast for over five months. Apologies were demanded and received, tears flew out of the eyes of every politician standing in front of a bank of microphones. None dared to question even the slimmest of facts. Investigative journalism was non-existent.
The secondary results of the outrage, the burning of churches, the toppling of statues, and the bellicose demands for “reconciliation” reached a fevered pitch. Every news report had to include the tears of the Indigenous elders, stories of torture and abuse, and had to decry “colonization”. It was the accepted script. As the words and terminology ramped up, the term “genocide” began to gain acceptance in liberal circles. It turned out to be a step too far, and it was then that some push back began. Including the residential schools with the likes of Auschwitz was beyond the pale, even for the fringe. Somewhat un-deterred “genocide” changed into the more acceptable “cultural genocide”.
What was really discovered of course, was “undocumented deaths”.
This is not to deny that the endemic deaths of children, especially in the late 19th century were at unfathomable levels, some estimates reaching 20% of the children who had attended the schools. They were in fact dying of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and influenza. The conditions were deplorable at the schools run by the Churches but the deaths were “not a surprise”. In fact 100 years ago, the Department of Indian affairs head resigned because of the number of deaths from tuberculosis, in his mind had reached unsupportable levels.
The conditions at the schools has in point of fact been exhaustively explored for decades: inquiries, public hearings, criminal cases, settlements and Federal investigations. The largest and now most pointed to was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; which ran for over seven years, from 2008-2015.
In that report, using the numbers that they produced, the following was revealed for the years 1890-1969:
3,021 are listed as being “undocumented deaths” and there is no record of 1391 of those children. 832 died in schools, 418 died at home, 427 in hospital, 90 in non-school situations, and 43 died in a sanatorium.
But, looking at the facts would have tapped down the rhetoric. Rarely does anything get in the way of this Liberal Federal government or in the Provincial political corridors when there is an opportunity to make political statements of empathy. They are all apologists to the core. It plays well. The unglued Indigenous Minister at the time, Carolyn Bennett expressed hope that the finding of the graves would be a “catalyst” like “George Floyd”. Again the inherent implication was that these children were killed.
Since that time, billions of dollars are being spent in one form or another for the “survivors” who suffered at the hands of those who ruled that “white supremacist, colonial settler state”. Two billion dollars in reparations to survivors, a $10,000 “common experience payment” to the 90,000 or so current survivors, an additional $3000 per year for every year they went, and over $200 million for funding “healing and education programs”. That was in 2006.
In 2019 there was a class action suit launched for those that attended day school, returning home everyday after school. That allowed for those survivors to be paid between $10,000 and $200,000 depending on the level of “abuse” claimed. Recently in a third suit settlement, “survivors” and “descendants of survivors” who died before May 30, 2005 can now also apply for compensation.
I will admit as being one who has always been confused how monies and the payment of monies to grandchildren for instance, somehow “reconciles” historical wrong doing but suffice to say that the price for any wrong doing seems to have at the very least been paid and paid in full.
Now, according to Chief Rosanne Casimir of Kamloops, commenting on the one year anniversary says that they have now entered into a new “phase”. The lead investigative group for this matter is now the Band itself, the Mounties there to give “support” only. Even with that said, a debate continues as to whether the bodies should be exhumed at all.
“The remains are there, what more proof do they want” exemplifies that thinking.
All this is of course a tacit admission that this is not as originally inferred a “crime scene”. Chief Casimir now describes it as an “exhumation to memorialization”. The focus is now to find “evidence of remains and link them to their home communities”. Ever so quietly they now seem resigned to the fact that the findings to date do not meet the criteria of anything bordering on a mass grave. The RCMP have already said that they have opened a file, but they are not actively investigating, clearly believing from the outset that this was not a crime scene. Garry Gotfriedson, a “survivor”, and head of the Committee, is even quoted as saying “all of us that attended the schools already knew that they (the bodies) were there”.
So the headlines that bounced around the world have now come full circle. The remains of these children have gone from being a symbol of a Church led criminal conspiracy to becoming a political lever, pawns in the game of “reconciliation”, pawns elicited to generate legal apologies. The deaths of children by some form of criminal behaviour is almost unthinkable but it is those thoughts and inferences which are now being used in various political arenas. Translating this narrative to various forms of reconciliation is the base of every political and economic Indigenous demand. It is unseemly. It should be criticized, not condoned.
Despite the recent announcements there is no current timeline on the exhumation of the bodies which is unlikely to yield little if any evidence of criminality or wrong-doing. Everyone knows that. They also know that the story will be reconstituted when that exhumation process begins (if ever) and that the results could actually water down the current political Liberal accepted narrative.
A thirteen person “committee” has been assigned by the Kamloops band to oversee the exhumation; the first stage being the “oral telling by elders who survived the school”. They will then use that information to begin collecting DNA from those survivors to try and identify the children remains.
“There is no manual for us to follow, so we are taking things slowly” said the Chair of the Committee Gottfriedson.
It is only after that stage will they begin to exhume and “only at that point will forensic archeologists and archivists begin their work.”
He estimated that the first stages “will take years” and the ever present caveat that the Federal government must fund the entire multi-year operation.
Is the process being prolonged and forecast into many of years to come intentional? Or is it due to a need to control the narrative? They are impolite questions to be sure. But the Indigenous need to be held to some form of accountability, both to the makeup and conduct of the investigation and its eventual outcome. Reporting on those findings and being questioned as to the process is also part of that expectation.
The grieving has to be subsumed and the political staging replaced by the real need to get to the children. At the very least you could give them back their dignity and their identity in their deaths.
Photo Courtesy of Flickr Commons by GotoVan – Some rights reserved