One year ago today, the leaders of the British Columbia First Nation Band Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the discovery of a mass grave of more than 200 Indigenous children detected at a residential school in British Columbia.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, said in a statement on May 27, 2021.
The band called the discovery, “Le Estcwicwéy̓” — or “the missing.”
What’s still missing, however, according to a number of Canadian academics, is proof of the remains in the ground.
Since last year’s announcement, there have been no excavations at Kamloops nor any dates set for any such work to commence. Nothing has been taken out of the ground so far, according to a Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc spokesman.
The alleged burial ground, which is said to include 215 bodies — some as young as 3 years old — was located with the help of ground-penetrating radar at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was run by the Roman Catholic Church from 1890 to 1978. The number of bodies was based on irregularities in the ground ascertained by the radar waves, according to an anthropologist hired by the band to scan the site.
Kamloops was one of a network of residential schools across Canada run by the government and operated by churches from the 1880s through the end of the 20th century. Experts say an estimated 150,000 children attended the schools.
“The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Indigenous heritage and culture or to speak their own languages,” according to the website of the First Nations and Indigenous Studies of the University of British Columbia.
Last May’s news sent shockwaves through Canada and across the globe. Within days, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decreed, partly at the request of tribal leaders, that all flags on federal buildings fly at half-mast. The Canadian government and provincial authorities almost immediately pledged about $50 million to fund more research and in December pledged another $30 billion to compensate former students in the schools who were abused. Pope Francis issued a formal apology on behalf of the Catholic church, which ran many of the residential school facilities and asked for God’s forgiveness. He said he planned to visit Canada later this year to further assist in healing and reconciliation.
But a group of about a dozen academics in Canada don’t believe the whole story.
“Not one body has been found,” Jacques Rouillard, who is a professor emeritus in the Department of History at the Université de Montréal, told The Post. “After …months of recrimination and denunciation, where are the remains of the children buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School?”
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc spokesman Larry Read confirmed to The Post this week that no bodies have yet been exhumed from the Kamloops school and no dates have been set to start excavations. He added that the report showing the results of the ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has not been released by the band but may be at some point in the future.
Rouillard, who first made his case for what he said was a total lack of evidence for the mass graves in a January essay, doesn’t deny that serious abuses may have occurred at residential schools.
But he and others question the highly-charged narrative about Kamloops school that includes children being murdered and buried in what some past school attendees say was an apple orchard.
“They use a lot of words like ‘cultural genocide,’” Rouillard told The Post. “If that’s true, there should be excavations. Everything is kept vague. You can’t criticize them. Canadians feel guilty so they keep quiet.”
First Nation members had long believed that the area held the remains of Kamloops students, according to both Casimir and Read. When they decided to use federal funds they got during Covid to contract with an expert to look for the remains, the results were lightning quick, Read told The Post.
On May 17, 2021, the band hired Sarah Beaulieu, a young anthropologist from the University of the Fraser Valley, to scan and survey the site. Beaulieu scanned the site between May 21 and May 23 and the band announced her shocking findings on May 27.
Beaulieu said that remote sensors picked up “anomalies” and what are called “reflections” that indicate the remains of children may be buried at the site. Beaulieu did not respond to emails sent by The Post.
“My findings confirmed what Elders had shared,” Beaulieu said after she presented a report about her work in July 2021 that did not include specific evidence. “It’s an example of science playing an affirming role of what the Knowledge Keepers already recognized.”
The “Knowledge Keepers” are living guardians of the cultural traditions of regional, local and indigenous communities.
Since the Kamloops discovery, investigators using ground-penetrating radar say they’ve located what may be the unmarked graves of another 800 or so children at residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, according to reports.
But, like Rouillard, Tom Flanagan, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, isn’t buying any of it.
“This is the biggest fake news story in Canadian history,” Flanagan told The Post. “All this about unmarked graves and missing children triggered a moral panic. They have come to believe things for which there is no evidence and it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Strangely, Rouillard, Flanagan and their associates have an ally of sorts in Eldon Yellowhorn, a professor and founding chair of the Indigenous Studies department at the University of Fraser Valley — the same place Sarah Beaulieu works.
Yellowhorn, who grew up on a farm on the Peigan Indian reservation with many family members who attended residential schools, is both an archaeologist and anthropologist. He is part of the Blackfoot nation. He’s been searching for and identifying the grave sites of indigenous children at residential schools in Canada since 2009 after being hired by Canada’s powerful Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Many of the graves he’s identified at residential schools in other parts of the country, though, come from actual cemeteries and it’s not always clear how they died.
Some of those found had succumbed to disease, Yellowhorn said, citing one cemetery where it became apparent many children perished from the Spanish flu a little over a century ago.
“I can understand why some people are skeptical about the Kamloops case,” Yellowhorn told The Post. “This is all very new. There’s a lot of misinformation floating out there. People are speaking from their emotions.”
As Yellowhorn sees it, the actual evidence for the mass grave at the Kamloops site is thin.
“All the radar shows you is that there are anomalies or reflections,” he said. “The only way to be certain is to peel back the earth and ascertain what lies beneath. We have not gotten to the point where we can do that. It’s a huge job.”
Despite his own skepticism, Yellowhorn says it’s entirely possible that if excavations are ever carried out at Kamloops — actual human remains could be found, much as they were in 2014 in Ireland after ground-penetrating radar showed anomalies at one of the country’s notorious mother and baby homes.
Canadian professor Frances Widdowson said that no one dares question indigenous leaders in Canada these days, which makes it difficult to check their claims about buried remains of children.
“Knowledge Keepers, after all, cannot be questioned, because to do so would be perceived as ‘disrespectful,’” wrote Widdowson in “The American Conservative” in February. Widdowson is a former tenured professor at Mt. Royal University in Calgary.
Widdowson wrote that “lurid” talk of buried indigenous children has circulated for more than 25 years and is “now firmly ensconced within the Canadian consciousness.” But she said there’s still no hard evidence.
The Canadian professors also take issue with reports that at least 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, which is now accepted as gospel in Canada.
Flanagan and others say the number is misleading at best — because a large percentage of Indian parents willingly opted for residential schools as they were the only way for their children to get an education.
Tomson Highway, a full-blood Cree, is a well-known Canadian composer, author and pianist. Now 70, he was born the youngest of 12 in a tent pitched on a snowbank on an island in a lake in remote northwestern Manitoba.
The nearest school to where his family roamed as nomads was 300 miles south, Highway told The Post.
“The idea that we could walk a few blocks to school or take the bus to high school was an unimaginable luxury, we couldn’t conceive of it,” he said.
So in order to receive an education, Highway said he entered the Guy Hill Indian Residential School in Manitoba on September 1, 1958.
Highway, who wrote about his sub-Arctic childhood in last year’s “Permanent Astonishment,” told The Post that he credits his years spent at Guy Hill for his success in life.
“I went because my father wanted me to,” Highway said about his dad, a caribou hunter and champion dog sledder who was illiterate. “My oldest brother was illiterate, too. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to the rest of us kids. So we went.”
Highway said the Guy Hill school wasn’t perfect and that he witnessed and experienced some abuse.
But “I didn’t see any strange deaths,” he said. “A lot of the white people there were kind. The education I got there…set me up for life.”