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Jawbones, Gophers and Tainted Milk: What Do We Really Know About Missing Children at Canada’s Residential Schools?

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Academics Hymie Rubenstein and Tom Flanagan investigate recent claims regarding missing students and unmarked graves at Canada’s allegedly genocidal Indian Residential Schools. They find the current narrative to be sorely lacking in facts and other reliable evidence.

With so much pressure to apply Indigenous ways of knowing to many subjects and public policy imperatives, it has become necessary to remind everyone of the crucial importance of Western ways of knowing to life in the 21st century. The scientific method, open discourse, archival evidence and rigorous use of logic undergird modern civilization and have made our digital age possible. Using this toolbox of time-tested concepts, academics Hymie Rubenstein and Tom Flanagan investigate recent claims regarding missing students and unmarked graves at Canada’s allegedly genocidal Indian Residential Schools. They find the current narrative to be sorely lacking in facts and other reliable evidence.

Since November 2021 a search team using ground penetrating radar (GPR) has been scouring 55 acres of land surrounding the remains of the Lebret Indian Residential School in central Saskatchewan. Also known as the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School (IRS), it operated from 1884 to 1998, making it Canada’s longest-running residential school for native children. Last month, the Star Blanket Cree Nation announced its search had detected over 2,000 “soil anomalies.” Some of these, Chief Michael Starr declared, could be unmarked graves of children who had attended the school. It is a story Canadians have heard many times in recent months.

But where previous announcements leaned heavily on the vague concept of “possible gravesites,” the Lebret finding took on additional power with the presentation of a jawbone fragment from the search area. Project leader Sheldon Poitras explained that the bone constituted “physical proof of an unmarked grave.” Curiously enough, it was not GPR technology that did the hard work of discovery, but varmints. The fragment was spotted lying on the ground beside a gopher hole by a member of the on-site security team shortly after an Orange Shirt Day activity last October. The team decided to wait until the bone’s age could be verified before releasing it alongside the GPR results. Said Starr of the gophers’ help, “That’s a form of validation, living with creation, living in our understanding of the animals and they helped us.”

During the announcement in mid-January at the First Nation’s community gym, the jawbone fragment – said to be from a child aged four to six – was exhibited like a sacred relic in a small, bright-blue box adorned with beaded jewelry and gifts of tobacco. Starr said it had been assessed at about 125 years old, dating it to around 1898. “This is physical evidence, physical proof of an unmarked grave,” Starr declared triumphantly.

Sympathetic media figures eagerly promoted the discovery, while federal Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Marc Miller called it the first example of verified human remains found at an IRS site. This was erroneous. Human remains have been found before but were later dismissed as fallacious or irrelevant to IRS burials. Two bones – a juvenile tooth and a rib – were initially cited as evidence in May 2021 when the Tk’emplúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced its unmarked graves discovery. The tooth was later revealed to be not human, while the so-called rib bone, which had been found by a tourist, has apparently disappeared without being authenticated.

Nevertheless, the jawbone discovery has been widely held as offering concrete proof of claims of the culpability of government and residential school operators in the mistreatment and death of Indigenous schoolkids. Here was the necessary hard evidence to bolster the oral history. “The stories have always been told, passed down from generation to generation,” Poitras opined. “This discovery here validates…to the world that those stories have some merit.” But does it really?

What do the Bones Say?

The provenance of ex situ bones – objects found away from their original site and the valuable context this provides – should always be treated with caution. A bone fragment could have been dug up where it was found or it could have been carried there from elsewhere, such as the community’s cemetery, by a gopher or other animal, or even deposited by a mischievous person. Moreover, that it was displayed in a perfectly clean manner suggests it had been repeatedly handled by numerous persons. Aside from further obscuring its informational value, this renders any DNA analysis into its background highly problematic.

principle of superpos

According to the archaeological principle of superposition, any bones found lying on the ground beside a gopher hole must be considered with great caution. Lacking the context of surrounding material, their age and provenance are uncertain. (Source of image: Human Origins Program, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution)

The jawbone was sent to the Saskatchewan Coroner’s Service, which reportedly deemed it “historical in nature.” That is to say, not within the medical or legal time periods with which coroners are usually concerned. Poitras converted this vague description into a precise statement that the jawbone was 125 years old. He gave no other evidence for this date, and it is hard to see what could be provided. No scientific test can date such recent discoveries; researchers instead rely on the discovery’s physical context, which is missing in this case. The clamour to accept a precise date for the bone and herald it as proof of a particular claim is another example of “science by press conference” in line with other recent reported discoveries of unmarked graves.

While there is no direct evidence connecting the bone fragment to the school, there is indirect evidence disputing its association with a boarding school pupil. Modelled after an American residential school design in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the Lebret IRS was an industrial school specifically designed to teach Indigenous teenagers practical skills like cooking, cleaning, laundering and sewing to girls and carpentry, blacksmithing, construction and agricultural work to boys. These are not activities one would typically set for a four-to-six year-old. Pending further evidence on the age of Lebret’s student population 125 years ago, there’s reason to be skeptical of the jawbone’s connection to the school.

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The Qu’Appelle IRS was originally planned as an industrial school based on an earlier American design and intended to teach female teenagers housekeeping and sewing, and male teenagers agricultural and construction skills; it was not geared towards young children aged four to six. (Sources of photos: (top) Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre Collections; (bottom) University of Regina)

Regarding the overall believability of the entire project, Poitras further purported that his GPR study had located several mysterious underground formations that would be explored in detail later. “Secret rooms and underground tunnels are slowly being uncovered by those searching the grounds of the Indian Residential School located in the Village of Lebret,” one Indigenous publication breathlessly reported. No further details or locations were revealed.  Skepticism is always warranted for spectacular claims that lack supporting evidence.

Starr said the search team would now begin covering other reserve areas with GPR, a task that could take three years to complete given its nearly 14,000-acre size. “There’s been discussions with AXIOM [Exploration Group] about doing miniature core drilling,” Poitras also claims. “We’ll pick an area of interest, we’ll send a core drill down, collect a sample, bring it up, and test that sample for DNA.” If such a process is effective and credible, the Star Blanket’s DNA plan could provide a welcome model for the many other communities that have reported unmarked graves without offering independent validation. But it begs the question of why others have so far eschewed such investigation.

Confirmation Bias

It should be recalled that the origin of the search for alleged missing IRS students is the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whose eight years of work resulted in 94 “calls to action,” three dealing with “missing children and burial information.” One of these referred to “the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried.”

This in turn led to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s shocking and widely-reported press release in May 2021 that claimed “confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” (Emphasis added.) The announcement unleashed a nationwide outpouring of grief and anger, including the Orange Shirt Day phenomenon, an ostentatious display of emotion by the Prime Minister, as well as the desecration and destruction of dozens of churches across Canada.

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The unmarked graves controversy: A May 2021 announcement by Tk’emlύps te Secwépemc declaring the “confirmation of the remains of 215 children” from the Kamloops IRS sparked many emotional protests, further searches and the burning of dozens of churches. (Source of top photo: Blake Elliott/Shutterstock)

Claims of confirmation or physical proof, while frequently tossed about, remain highly suspect. Beyond questions about the jawbone’s provenance, GPR cannot even verify the existence of organic material, let alone human remains. Starr himself acknowledged these limitations for the Lebret investigation. “GPR can’t definitively say,” he admitted. “It could be a stone and it can be a combo of gravel. It could be a piece of wood, or it could actually be something. We don’t know yet. All we know is that there’s over 2,000 of them.” Starr’s caveat didn’t stop others eager to jump to conclusions, including higher education institutions that ought to know better. The University of Saskatchewan, for example, issued a statement saying it “stands with Star Blanket Cree Nation following the discovery of…many potential unmarked graves.”

Closer inspection, however, could show these purported burial sites to be something else entirely. Decades of construction and other activity in areas like the abandoned apple orchard near the Kamloops IRS where many GPR “hits” were recorded could well account for soil disturbances. None of the technical reports resulting from GPR searches have been released by any First Nation for independent scrutiny. Claims that something sinister occurred at Lebret remain speculative. “We were aware of the things that were happening in the past,” Starr said cryptically, before adding, “We didn’t know exactly what was happening. But we knew something happened…It was sad. It was hurtful. And it made us very angry.”

Starr stressed that his First Nation had no financial motivations in all this. “We don’t want anything,” he said. “We want to honour the remains of this young child.” Yet this did not prevent Saskatchewan’s Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron, whose organization funded the Star Blanket’s GPR search, from complaining that if the government was committed to helping, it “can start by building healing and wellness centres.”

Searching the Historical Record

The Memorial Register of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) has a list of Lebret IRS students who died while registered or within a year of their discharge. Of the 56 listed students, the date of demise of 17 is unknown, suggesting they died during the early years of the school’s operation when record-keeping was spotty. An additional 24 students are known to have died before 1900. This is a period when death rates from infectious diseases were at their apex in residential schools. Overall, 41 students representing nearly three-quarters of alleged missing students can be considered likely to have died more than 122 years ago, and most of them probably from contagious diseases such as influenza, measles and tuberculosis (TB), afflictions against which Indigenous people had little natural resistance.

There is no evidence that the families were not alerted about their children’s demise or that some criminal act resulted in their unfortunate deaths. And despite all the claims to the contrary, none of the 56 students appear to be actually missing; their names and other information can readily be found within existing archives. This discovery comes through the work of Nina Green, an independent researcher whose Indian Residential Schools Records website has collected and organized voluminous historical data that was apparently not consulted or analyzed by the TRC or NCTR.

Green and other independent researchers have found that death records actually exist for thousands of registered IRS children stated to be unaccounted for. This newly-revealed data shows most did not die at the schools. Instead, they died under care in local hospitals or in accidents or from disease on their home reserves. Their death certificates, some signed by their parents, show that most were buried on their home reserves. Moreover, the TRC did not record any instances of a parent searching at the relevant time for a missing child.

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Independent researcher Nina Green has created the Indian Residential Schools Records website that posts archival evidence offering a more detailed picture of “missing students.”

As her work has unfolded, Green has diligently reported her findings to the NCTR in cases where it contradicts official statistics. One major area of concern is the duplication of student records. Her work on the Lebret school, for example, suggests that 55 rather than 56 students died while in attendance. The records for students Josephine (Qu’Appelle) and Josephine Standing Buffalo, recorded as dying on the same day, probably refer to the same person. (See page 51 of her document.) Many other cases of likely duplication can be found at other schools. To date, no action has been taken to correct the Memorial Register as a result of Green’s painstaking archival work.

Traditional Practices

The unmarked aspect of many graves found around residential schools is neither a new issue nor should it be considered sinister. This is because permanently marking graves was not a traditional Indigenous practice. Pre-contact funerary practices among Aboriginals in what is now Canada typically involved interring the dead with their personal belongings to ensure a safe passage into the spirit world. Depending on the group, this could involve drying and embalming the remains, burying bodies in a sitting position, marking them with red ochre, or placing the remains in middens, earthen mounds, stone cairns or above ground on platforms or in trees.

Habitually visiting or memorializing the dead was also not common, given that most of Canada’s pre-contact people were nomadic hunters and gatherers who disposed of their dead wherever they happened to be. The migratory Cree peoples of the Prairies traditionally buried their dead in small shallow unmarked graves wherever they were temporarily encamped. Enclosed and permanent cemeteries were mainly established after the bison were all-but annihilated in the late 1800s, the same period as the land surrender treaties establishing Indian reserves were signed. As wooden cross markers deteriorate rapidly in Canadian weather, more and more graves became unmarked, or marked but unidentifiable, through a combination of traditional customs and the passage of time. This has made proving the existence of Canada’s IRS cemeteries or other burial sites difficult, a task exacerbated by politicization, sorrow and recrimination.

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Pre-contact Indigenous funerary practices in North America varied widely and were often impermanent, in marked contrast with European traditions that focus on perpetual memorialization. At right, the Kamloops Reserve’s community cemetery as it exists today. (Source of right photo: The Dorchester Review)

Underlying the exploration for unknown cemeteries is the belief that GPR findings can indicate the remains of children who were sent to an IRS but never returned home. A related assumption is that most children who died while registered at an IRS were buried in the school’s cemetery rather than on their home reserve. The TRC habitually called such cases “missing children.” Volume 4 of its report defined this term to include children who died at school, might have run away to urban areas, finished school but then moved away, fell ill and died in a hospital or sanatorium, or were transferred to foster homes. “Missing children” and “unmarked graves” (which may contain adults or children who were never reported missing) have thus become conflated so that many commentators now refer to “missing children in unmarked graves” as if the two distinct phenomena are synonymous.

There are other grounds to question the GPR results. On sheer logic alone, it seems inconceivable that 100, let alone 2,000, Indigenous children drawn from the 14 neighbouring reserves that made up the Star Blanket Band could have died while attending the school (which had 280 students in 1914) and ended up buried under mysterious circumstances (possibly in secret underground tunnels) without provoking a huge outcry from parents, family members, band elders – or other schoolchildren and workers. Moreover, if any of the 2,000 GPR “hits” do end up pointing to human remains, further investigation would still be needed to determine their origin.

Regardless of legitimate questions that may be raised about the jawbone discovery or below-ground anomalies, many Canadians remain shocked by the whole issue of residential school graves, perhaps most of all at the thought that some young students who died while attending school were not returned to their families to be buried on their home reserves. Modern sensibilities rooted in the logically shaky notion of “presentism” may well regard this as evidence of institutional inhumanity. But 125 years ago, local interment was perfectly normal for people of all races who died in hospitals, mental institutions, poor houses or jails, or along railway or canal construction sites.

With federal budgets perpetually strained in Canada’s early years – and given the lack of refrigeration and rapid transport – it was often impractical to send bodies to distant reserves. Instead, local churches often undertook the responsibility and cost of burying the local dead from indigent families, as this TRC report itself indicates. The same policy applied to European school personnel, including clergy. In extreme circumstances such as severe epidemics, mass graves could become a public health necessity to prevent further contagion.

A Plausible Genocide?

This past January was witness to another GPR “discovery,” this one by the Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation of Kenora, Ontario. Unlike the Star Blanket findings, the 170 subsurface anomalies discovered have been referred to as “plausible burials,” presumably because they were found in a well-known but neglected cemetery close to the reserve’s former St. Mary’s IRS.

That some of these anomalies may be signs of human remains is certainly plausible, not only because cemeteries are where dead people are usually interred but because students who died from epidemic diseases while attending school were known to have been buried on-site rather than returned to their families. As Scott Hamilton, an archeologist hired by the TRC to investigate burial locations, pointed out in his official report, “Some of the deceased were returned to their families for burial, but most others were likely buried in cemeteries on school grounds, or in nearby church, reserve or municipal cemeteries.” (Emphasis added.)

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Local burials common: Archeologist Scott Hamilton reviewed burial practices for IRS students for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He found “some of the deceased were returned to their families for burial, but most others were likely buried in cemeteries on school grounds, or in nearby church, reserve or municipal cemeteries.”

The overall result would be that students from distant reserves attending an IRS would have made up most of the pupils buried there. Local band leaders and families were expected to acknowledge the burials and maintain the graves, such as by replacing wooden crosses as they decayed. In many instances, unfortunately, this was not done. Still, school burials were the exception rather than the rule because a preponderance of student deaths did not occur at residential schools, a fact archaeologist Hamilton failed to acknowledge. None of this is new information or in any way sinister. In other words, the recent “discoveries” at the Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation appear both unremarkable and predictable.

Despite this distinct lack of evidence of any nefarious events, the announcement immediately triggered cries of mass murder. Wayne Mason, executive director of Winnipeg’s Wa-Say Healing Centre, which provides health and wellness support for residential school survivors and their families, said the Kenora GPR survey results evoked “the Holocaust.” And as with other Holocausts, Mason said, “Some of these people that are still alive today that were perpetrators of the residential school killings should be charged.” This, he asserted, is the price of “true reconciliation.”

The Tainted Milk Murders

As previously discussed, the mere presence of a jawbone on the ground beside a gopher hole is not proof of anything beyond the industriousness of gophers. The same goes for the myriad allegations of missing children, unmarked graves and various other misdeeds laid at the feet of residential schools and their administrators. That old cemeteries contain dead bodies should shock no-one. Yet Canadians are subjected to a constant stream of new allegations regarding historical misdeeds at residential schools without any apparent concern for proof or coherence.

Another example of this worrisome tendency is a report released on January 24 claiming unpasteurized milk was responsible for the deaths of “many” Indigenous children at the Blue Quills IRS on Alberta’s Saddle Lake Indian Reserve. And that this in turn is more evidence of “a genocide.” That apparently healthy native children arrived at the Blue Quills school and later became ill and, in some cases, died of TB or other diseases is seen by Leah Redcrow, executive director of the First Nation’s Acimowin Opaspiw Society, as proof of a grand conspiracy.

“We feel that these children were being deliberately infected with tuberculosis,” Redcrow told the CBC. “It appears as though people like to accept the fact that these children just died of tuberculosis because First Nations people are natural carriers of tuberculosis and that is a farce.” Redcrow heads an investigative team that previously claimed hundreds of the First Nation’s children went missing during the residential school era and presumably died. Now she’s levelling the even more incendiary charge of mass murder by the deliberate feeding of tainted milk to innocent Indigenous children.

Regarding the limits of farce, even the typically credulous CBC showed signs of skepticism in its coverage of the Blue Quills allegations. The broadcaster interviewed Keith Warriner, a professor of food safety at the University of Guelph, who explained that the adoption of pasteurized milk “was a hard sell” throughout the early part of the 20th century and its ability to prevent TB was often contested in public. So it remained common to consume unpasteurized – and potentially infected – milk. Even if these alleged deaths could be traced back to tainted milk, why would anyone have deliberately poisoned it?

Regarding Redcrow’s previous claims, independent researcher Green examined the NCTR Memorial Register for schoolchildren recorded as not returning home from the Blue Quills school. Of the 27 children listed as having died while attending the school, one is mentioned twice and three did not belong on the list because they were not of school age. Of the remaining 23, nine died of TB. Most importantly, Green found death records or notarized death certificates for 18 of the 27 children, many signed by their parents. All this important data has been posted online by Green. (See page 5 of her document.) Of those for whom data were available, none was listed as having died under mysterious or criminal circumstances or buried anywhere other than on their home reserves.

Suspicions that there are, in fact, no missing or secretly buried Blue Quills IRS students grow stronger when considering the absence of any relatives looking for loved ones who never returned home from the school. In fact, in all of Canada, only two distant relatives have been identified as looking for their ancestors from any residential school. In both cases, the children were found in provincial archives whose records showed they were properly interred on their home reserves. This is a far cry – orders of magnitude – from the “15,000 to 25,000…maybe even more” children Murray Sinclair, former chair of the TRC, has claimed may be missing.

The Whole Truth

Subjecting allegations of gravesites, serendipitous jawbones or accusations of murder by poisoned milk to the unblinking rigour of science, logic and archival proof is not “heartless cynicism,” as some critics claim. It is a necessary process to ensure Canadian public policy and opinion are formed on the basis of facts and reliable evidence, rather than rumour and hearsay. Such a verification process does not deny any of the provable harms caused by the residential schools. These include orphans or other children who were forced to attend residential schools against their will, sometimes for social welfare reasons. Nor does it dispute that harsh physical and other abuse took place at some schools during certain historical periods, just as it also occurred in boarding and other schools across Canada. It also does not disavow that a number of staff, mainly non-clergy, have been charged, convicted and imprisoned for sexually exploiting children under their protection – a heinous crime by any measure. Residential schools have many sins for which they must answer.

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What if no one went missing? Independent researcher Green scoured the Memorial Register of the NCTR for schoolkids who died while attending the Blue Quills IRS and found death certificates for 18 of the “missing” 23 students. Pictured, Blue Quills students circa 1940. (Source of photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta/Flickr Commons)

But any fulsome commitment to the truth must also acknowledge ample and readily accessible evidence that numerous other students have reported their IRS attendance to have been beneficial and appreciated. This fact was explicitly mentioned in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s much-noted official apology from 2008. There is also a large body of evidence attesting to the loving care given to students by religious and school staff.

Further, focusing exclusively on a victim-centric narrative denigrates the outstanding life achievements of many former IRS students. Here we include Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations; Leonard Marchand, the first Status Indian to be appointed to a federal cabinet position; Wilton Littlechild, a Member of Parliament and Commissioner on the TRC; and Tomson Highway, a highly-regarded playwright and novelist, among countless others. Highway called his time at an IRS, “Nine of the happiest years of my life.”

As for the Lebret IRS itself, not only does the archival record not align with the most recent claims about it, the school appears to have exhibited some enlightened principles. As the NCTR itself states, “In the school’s early years Aboriginal languages were allowed in the school and in 1886, the federal government approved the publication of a Cree-English primer.” The website adds that in 1951 it was “one of the first residential schools to offer high-school education.” The school and its students were well known for excellence in competitive sports such as hockey, baseball, track and field and football. Online resources list many accomplished and athletic graduates who became important Indigenous representatives for their community and the country. Their stories may not all be positive, but neither are they entirely negative.

There is a more complete, balanced and fact-filled story waiting to be told about Canada’s residential schools. But it will take plenty of research and hard work to uncover amid the current preference for obfuscation, innuendo and slander.

Hymie Rubenstein is the editor of The REAL Indigenous Issues Newsletter and a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba. Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and author of numerous books and articles on Indigenous issues.

This article was originally published in C2C Journal.

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Hymie Rubenstein

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Tom Flanagan