AFTER SEVEN MONTHS of recrimination and denunciation, where are the remains of the children buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School?
The Canadian Press has just honoured the children of residential schools as the “Person of the Year 2021.” The huge media story last summer grew out of the scanning of part of the site in the British Columbia interior where the school operated from 1890 to 1978. The “discovery” was first reported last May 27 by Tk’emlúps te secwépemc First Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir after an anthropologist, Sarah Beaulieu, used ground-penetrating radar in a search for the remains of children alleged by some to be buried there. She is a young anthropologist, an instructor in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of the Fraser Valley since 2018. Her preliminary report is actually based on depressions and abnormalities in the soil of an apple orchard near the school – not on exhumed remains. According to Chief Casimir, these “missing children” represent “undocumented deaths.” Their presence, she says, has long been “knowledge” in the community and “some were as young as three years old.”
From new research revealed at a July 15 press conference last year, the anthropologist scaled back the potential discovery from 215 to 200 “probable burials.” Having “barely scratched the surface,” she found many “disturbances in the ground such as tree roots, metal and stones.” The “disruptions picked up in the radar,” she says, led her to conclude that the sites “have multiple signatures that present like burials.” But she cannot confirm that until the site is excavated – if it is ever done. A community spokesperson says the full report “cannot” be released to the media. For Chief Casimir, “it is not yet clear whether the continuing work on the Kamloops site will involve excavation.”
The Kamloops “discovery” of 2021 created a major sensation in Canada and abroad. Based on the preliminary assessment and before any remains were found or any credible report made, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau immediately referred to “a dark and shameful chapter” in Canadian history. British Columbia Premier John Horgan said he was “horrified and heartbroken” to learn of a burial site with 215 children that highlights the violence and consequences of the residential school system. Several other Aboriginal communities and media outlets then followed up with references to unmarked graves.
On May 30, the federal government lowered the flags on all its buildings to half-staff. Later, it instituted a new holiday to honour “missing” children and survivors of residential schools. Spontaneously, clusters of shoes and orange shirts and other paraphernalia were placed on church steps in many cities or on the steps of legislatures in memory of the little victims. Around the country, churches were burned or vandalized. Statues were spray-painted and pulled down in apparent retaliation for the fate of the children. The statue of Queen Victoria in front of the Manitoba Legislature was defaced and pulled down. Montreal’s statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was knocked down, his detached bronze head symbolically rolling on the ground.
In the wake of unsubstantiated claims by Aboriginal leaders, several media outlets amplified and hyped the story by alleging that the bodies of 215 children had been found, adding that “thousands” of children had “gone missing” from residential schools and that parents had not been informed. The undisturbed sites even became “mass graves” where bodies were dumped in a jumble.
This supposed “news” made the rounds in all sorts of media, tarnishing Canada’s self-image and reputation abroad. Under the title “Horrible History: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada,” the May 28 New York Times, even when updated on Oct. 5, reported that “For decades, most [sic] Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools. A large number [sic] never returned home, their families given only vague explanations, or none at all.” The indigenous community “has found evidence of what happened to some of its missing children: a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children on the grounds of a former residential school.”
THESE FALSE REPORTS induced the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to portray the situation as “a large scale human rights violation.” The UN urged Canadian authorities and the Catholic Church to conduct “thorough investigations into the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of over 200 children” — again before a single verified body had been exhumed. Amnesty International is demanding that the persons and institutions responsible for the “remains” that had been “found” in Kamloops be prosecuted.
It was certainly ironic that China of all countries — itself probably the greatest human rights abuser in history — called for an investigation into human rights violations against the Indigenous people in Canada at the UN Human Rights Tribunal in June 2021. This demand was required just before Canadian officials read a statement to allow the UN human rights chief access into Xinjiang to investigate the unlawful detention of over one million Uyghur Muslims. Trudeau responded that Canada had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but that “China is not recognizing even that there is a problem.”
The supposed perpetrators of this “crime” are also making excuses: governments, religious communities, the Conference of Catholic Bishops. In June Pope Francis expressed his pain for “the shocking discovery in Canada of the remains of 215 children” at Kamloops, and in an exceptional gesture promised to come to Canada. Aboriginal leaders are demanding a formal apology and some (including Rosanne Casimir) that the church provide more compensation for survivors. To find out the truth about unmarked graves, the Canadian government made available in June an envelope of $27 million to “to identify and delineate burial sites, and returning remains home if desired.”
By never pointing out that it is only a matter of speculation or potentiality, and that no remains have yet been found, governments and the media are simply granting credence to what is really a thesis: the thesis of the “disappearance” of children from residential schools. From an allegation of “cultural genocide” endorsed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) we have moved to “physical genocide,” a conclusion that the Commission explicitly rejects in its report. And all of this is based only on soil abnormalities that could easily be caused by root movements, as the anthropologist herself cautioned in the July 15 press conference.
According to another anthropologist, Scott Hamilton, who has worked on residential school cemeteries for the TRC between 2013-2015, one must be very careful with the use of ground-penetrating radar because the soil may have been disturbed over the years by “sedimentary texture, … culturally-derived unconformities, obstructions or voids.” A project to test the soil with the same method at the Brandon Residential School in Manitoba, which began in 2012 and was re-launched in 2019, has not yet yielded any conclusive results. In June, the research team works to identify 104 potential graves and still needs to consult the residential school’s archives and interview survivors.
In its 2015 report, the TRC identified 3,200 deaths of children at residential schools. Surprisingly, it was unable to record the names of one-third of the children (32%) or for half (49%), the cause of death. Why are there so many “nameless” residential school students? According to Vol. 4 of the Report, there are “significant limitations in both the quality and quantity of the data the Commission has been able to compile on residential school deaths.”
In fact each trimester, school principals reported the names of students attending school to be funded by the government and specified the names of any students who had died. But “in many cases,” the Report says, school principals simply reported on the number of children who had died in the previous year, without identification. Or, they might give a total of the number of students who had died since a specific school opened, but with no indication of the name, year, or cause of death.
The Commission included all these unnamed students in the total of student deaths. That means that student deaths could have been counted twice: both in the trimester report by the principals and in the general compilation with no names. The Commission admitted that this possibility exists that some of the deaths recorded in the Named Register might also be included in the Unnamed Register.
This obviously biased method inflates greatly the number of missing students and the actual state of knowledge surrounding their deaths. And this flawed information is what lies at the root of the assumption that any unnamed students disappeared without their parents’ being informed and that the schools crudely buried them in mass graves.
It is likely that this methodological gap relates to the years prior to 1950 because the death rate recorded by the Commission in residential schools from 1921 to 1950 (named and unnamed deaths) is twice as high as that of Canadian youth in the general population aged five to fourteen for the same years. This mortality rate averaged about four deaths per year for every 1,000 youth attending the schools. Their deaths were mostly due to tuberculosis and influenza when the Commission could identify the cause.
On the other hand, the mortality rate in residential schools was actually comparable to the Canadian average from 1950 to 1965, again for youth aged five to fourteen. That drop from the previous period is most likely the result of the inoculation by vaccines that took place in the residential schools as in other Canadian schools.
Kamloops Residential School Deaths
THE COMMISSION expressed the hope that further investigation would occur into the reports of deaths in industrial schools, and Rosanne Casimir said that it is “of critical importance to identify those lost children” in Kamloops. I am happy to announce that we have completed a follow-up study.
Founded in 1890 on the initiative of Shuswap Chief Louis Clexlixqen (pictured below), the Kamloops industrial school was run by successive generations of priests and brothers of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and by the Sisters of St. Anne from Quebec. In the 1950s, with approximately 500 children, the school was run by four English-speaking Oblates and 11 sisters of Saint Anne, according to the estimate by Frédéric Barriault, research director at the Montreal Centre for Justice and Faith. He believed that a typical residential school run by the Catholic Church had two or three Oblates, a dozen nuns, and often hundreds of children.
Shuswap Chief Louis Clexlixqen, the founder of Kamloops Residential School who loved and respected the Oblate Fathers.
At the Kamloops residential school, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) officially recorded the names of 51 children who died from 1915 to 1964. We have been able to find information on these children from the records in Library and Archives Canada and from death certificates held by the British Columbia Archives’ Genealogy resource online which, it seems, was not consulted by NCTR researchers.
Combining these two sources provides a good picture of the deaths of at least 35 of the 49 students (two are duplicates). Seventeen died in hospital and eight on their own reserves as a result of illness or accidents. Four were the subject of autopsies and seven of coroners’ inquests. As for burial sites, 24 are buried in their home Indian Reserve cemetery, and four at the Kamloops Indian Reserve cemetery. For the rest of the 49 children, information is either missing or requires that the complete death certificate in the B.C. Vital Statistics Agency be consulted. This is a far cry from the unverified claim that authorities overlooked or somehow covered up their deaths, or that the parents were not informed, or the remains never returned home. Most were informed and most were returned home.
Beginning in 1935, the Department of Indian Affairs imposed a specific procedure for handling the death of a student. The principal of the residential school had to inform the departmental agent, who formed an inquiry committee composed of himself, the principal, and the doctor who had diagnosed the death. Parents must be informed of the investigation and were allowed to attend and make a statement.
For example, Kathleen Michel, 14 years old, fell ill on April 25, 1937 and was treated at the school by a nurse, who called a doctor. On May 1, she was taken by car to the Royal Inland Hospital of Kamloops. She was treated by a doctor but died two days later of acute nephritis with contributing causes of measles and cardiac dysfunction. In his report, the doctor did not find any deficiencies in the care provided at the residential school. The father was informed of the investigation, but did not want to attend. Unfortunately, the memorandum of the inquiry does not specify where she was buried.
SIGNIFICANTLY, THE Kamloops residential school is located at the heart of the Kamloops Reserve itself — a fact that is never reported by Aboriginal spokespersons or the media. The TRC report states that “schools were virtually all church-run in the early years of the system [and] Christian burial was the norm at most schools.” Also, the adjoining church cemetery “may be used as a burial ground for students who die at the school as well as for members of the local community and the missionaries themselves.” This is what happened in Kamloops. Our research shows that four students are buried in the Band cemetery on the reserve that is located near St. Joseph’s Church, not far from the residential school.
With the cemetery so close by, is it really credible that the remains of 200 children were buried clandestinely in a mass grave, on the reserve itself, without any reaction from the band council until last summer? Chief Casimir states that the presence of children’s remains had been “known” in the community for a long time. Aboriginal families are certainly as concerned about the fate of their children as any other community; why did they say nothing? Moreover, how can one think that entire groups of religious men and women dedicated to high moral standards could conspire to commit such sordid crimes without dissent and not even a single whistleblower?
The school is also close to the City of Kamloops. Agents of the Department of Indian Affairs, closely monitoring school operations, would have responded quickly to news of any missing or deceased children – if there had been any. Finally, as we have seen, the province required the completion of a death certificate for all deceased persons. At the turn of the twentieth century, British Columbia was not the wild west. A researcher today wishing to obtain the death certificate of any child attending the Kamloops residential school, can get it by entering the name and date of death on the the British Columbia Genealogical Records website. This type of research is also possible in other provinces.
Let us conclude with a side-note on another “nameless burial” site near a residential school, that of the Cowessess (Marieval) First Nation in Saskatchewan, which created more shock waves last June after the announcement in Kamloops. Operating since 1899 in a remote area, it was run by the Oblates and the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Hyacinthe. The surface search by georadar is more advanced there as 751 well laid out graves have been discovered. As shown by a CBC News reporter, this is in fact simply the Catholic cemetery of the Mission of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Marieval.
According to the register of baptisms, marriages and burials from 1885 to 1933, there are certainly graves present on site of children who died at the residential school, but also those of many adults and children under five years of age from the surrounding area. “There was a mixture of everyone in that graveyard, in that cemetery,” said local resident Pearl Lerat and her sister, Linda Whiteman, who attended Marieval residential school from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. Pearl said “the sisters’ parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried there along with others from outside the First Nation,” whites and natives together. According to other residents living nearby, the graves had crosses and headstones until the 1960s when a priest allegedly removed them because the cemetery was in “terrible shape.”
According to historian Jim Miller of the University of Saskatchewan, “the remains of children discovered in Marieval and Kamloops had been buried in cemeteries according to Catholic rites, under wooden crosses that quickly crumbled.” “The wooden cross was a Catholic burial marker for the poor,” confirms Brian Gettler of the University of Toronto. The residential school cemeteries with their wooden crosses probably look like the present St. Joseph’s Native Cemetery on the Kamloops Reserve (see photo).
Photo: Four Kamloops children who died at the residential school are buried in this cemetery — that of the Kamloops Aboriginal community (Credit: Ken Vavrhodt, Kamloops This Week, Nov. 17, 2020). The monument shown here is that of Shuswap Louis Clexlixqen, chief from 1852 until his death in 1915. A strong advocate of Indian education, he assisted the Oblate Fathers in establishing a day-school on the Kamloops Reserve in 1880 and initiated the Residential School built there in 1890.
According to the TRC report, the churchyard often served as a place of worship and burial for students who died at school as well as for members of the local community and the missionaries themselves. As residential school cemeteries have been abandoned, neglected, and even forgotten after their closure, they have blurred into the background. In many cases, they became difficult to locate or were used for other purposes. The Commission rightly proposed that they be documented, maintained, and protected.
It is hard to believe that a preliminary search for an alleged cemetery or mass grave in an apple orchard on reserve land near the residential school of Kamloops could have led to such a spiral of claims endorsed by the Canadian government and repeated by mass media all over the world. It gives a terrible and simplistic impression of complex issues in Canadian history. The exhumations have not yet begun and no remains have obviously been found. Imaginary stories and emotion have outweighed the pursuit of truth. On the road to reconciliation, isn’t the best way to seek and tell the whole truth rather than deliberately create sensational myths?
Jacques Rouillard is professor emeritus in the Department of History at the Université de Montréal.
Notes Courtney Dickson, Bridgette Watson, “Remains of 215 children found buried at former B.C. residential school, First Nation says,” CBC News, May 27, 2021, Updated: May 29, 2021; Tk’emlúps te secwépemc, Press Release, “Remains of Children of Kamloops Residential School Discovered,” May 27, 2021.  Jana G. Pruden and Mike Hager, “Anthropologist explains how she concluded 200 children were buried at the Kamloops Residential School,” Globe and Mail, Jul. 15, 2021, Updated: Jul. 16, 2021.  Justin Trudeau on Twitter, May 28, 2021.  Canadian Press, “B.C. premier ‘horrified’ at discovery of remains at Kamloops residential school site,” May 28, 2021.  New York Times, May 28, 2021, Oct 5, 2021.  United Nation Human Right, Office of the High Commissioner, “UN experts call on Canada, Holy See to investigate mass grave at indigenous school,” Geneva, Jun. 4, 2021.  Amnesty International, “Letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,” Jun. 14, 2021.  Adam Taylor, “China calls for Canada human rights inquiry, pre-empting demand for investigation into abuse of Uyghurs,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2021; David Ljunggren, Stephanie Nebehay, “Canada’s Trudeau angrily questions China seeking probe of indigenous children’s remains,” Reuters, Jun. 22, 2021.  Linda Bordoni, “Pope expresses shock for Canadian Residential School discovery and prays for healing,” Vatican News, Jun. 6, 2021.
 Brooklyn Neustaeter, “Indigenous leaders call for apology, compensation from Pope amid possible Canadian visit,” CTV News, Oct. 27, 2021. Rachel Aiello, “$27M will soon be available to communities to help locate children who died at residential schools: feds,” CTV News, Jun. 2, 2021.  Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p. 1.  Dr. Scott Hamilton, “Where are the Children buried?,” Dept. of Anthropology, Lakehead University, c. 2015, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Reports, p. 36.  Marek Tkach, “Manitoba first nation works to identify 104 potential graves at former Brandon residential school,” Global News, Jun. 14, 2021, updated Jun. 28, 2021.  Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, vol. 4, Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 2015, p. 1.  Ibid., p. 8.  Ibid., p. 7-8.  Ibid., p. 7.  Ibid., p. 19, 22.  Tk’emlúps te secwépemc, Press Release, “Tk’emlúps te secwépemc, “KIRS missing children findings but a fraction of investigation and work need to bring peace to families and communities,” Press Release, Jul. 15, 2021.  Mathieu Perreault, “Religious orders in residential schools is a ‘quebecois’ story,” La Presse Torstar, Jul. 2, 2021. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/07/02/religious-orders-in-residential-schools-is-a-quebecois-story.html  National Centre for Truth and Reconciliationhttp://search-collections.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Genealogy  Library and Archives Canada, School Files Series – 1879-1953 (RG10), About the Records: Indian and Inuit Affairs Program sous-fonds: School Files Series, 1879-1953 (RG10-B-3-d), LAC c-8770, number 829; LAC c-8773, number 1323.  Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, vol. 4, Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, p. 9.  Pensionnat Kamloops, Kathleen Michel, Library and Archives Canada, School Files Series – 1879-1953 (RG10), LAC C-8773-01350.  Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, vol. 4, p. 118-119.  Jorge Barrera, “Catholic register, survivors offer clues to who may be buried in cemetery next to Marieval residential school,” CBC News, Jul 20, 2021.
On line : https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/marieval-cemetery-graves-1.6106563 Mathieu Perreault, “Religious orders in residential schools is a ‘quebecois’ story,” loc. cit.  Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, vol. 4, p. 125-134.
This article was first published in THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, and is posted here with the kind permission of the editor.