History and Historiography

What happened to the graves of Indigenous children reportedly discovered in Canada in 2021?

The Signal

What happened to the graves of Indigenous children reportedly discovered in Canada in 2021? Terry Glavin on the elaborate confusion obscuring an ongoing mystery and longstanding injustice.
Mladen Borisov
Mladen Borisov
Riots, vandalism, toppled statues, burned churches—they were all part of the fallout in Canada last summer following news reports about the remains of children buried on the sites of Indian residential schools, which had operated across the country from the 1820s to the 1990s. Now a source of profound national shame, these government-funded boarding schools were mainly run by churches and used to assimilate some 150,000 Indigenous children over more than a century and a half. It’s well established that many of these children suffered abuse, died, or disappeared—especially following the report of a government-funded Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015—but last summer’s reports of shocking new discoveries thrust the issue to the center of Canadian media and political attention. In September, Canada marked its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. In April, Pope Francis issued an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential schools and promised to visit the country this coming summer to apologize to survivors in person. Then, last week, the Toronto-based National Post newspaper published a 5,500-word article by the journalist Terry Glavin, laying out evidence that the media had got last summer’s story very wrong. “… not a single mass grave was discovered in Canada last year,” Glavin wrote. “The several sites of unmarked graves that captured international headlines were either already-known cemeteries, or they remain sites of speculation even now, unverified as genuine grave sites. Not a single child among the 3,201 children on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 registry of residential school deaths was located in any of these places. In none of these places were any human remains unearthed.” What’s happened here?
Terry Glavin is a columnist for The National Post and The Ottawa Citizen, a contributing editor to Maclean’s magazine, and the author of the newsletter The Real Story. According to Glavin, the critical factor in the developments of the last year has been an almost total failure by the press to listen to the Indigenous people who actually knew the details of what was going on at the residential-school sites—people who have been emphasizing, for instance, that they’d not, in fact, found mass graves but “probable” burials. Instead, Glavin says, journalists have tended to advance and amplify sensational narratives about the evidence that have supported a “radical chic” view of Canada as a categorically oppressive country. While some good has come from the resulting attention and introspection, Glavin sees a bigger “crisis of public knowledge” behind them—in which narrative storytelling is overtaking fact-based reporting and a pervasive desire to believe certain ideas is overpowering people’s ability to understand their world.
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Graham Vyse: What were the circumstances leading up to the reporting about newly discovered graves last year?
Terry Glavin: There was a series of events. In 2015,, a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found that the country’s system of residential schools for Indigenous children should be understood to have imposed a form of cultural genocide. I’ve never raised any objection to that finding. In fact, I’ve argued for it.
The report refers to about 3,000 children who seem to have vanished. Whether they vanished just from the archival record or vanished in the real world isn’t known, but they disappeared at least from the record after being enrolled in one of the more than 130 residential schools throughout Canada. The federal government didn’t invest much in the way of resources to survey the grave sites around the schools and determine any connection between those sites and the missing children.
A related phenomenon just prior to last summer was the emergence of a lot of very wild, conspiratorial talk—thoroughly debunked, mainly by Indigenous journalists—about an archipelago of mass graves across the country that contained the bodies of Indigenous children murdered by priests. Stories spread of a big coverup involving prime ministers and Indigenous leaders. It was awful. Some of that talk ended up dying down, but some of it lingered.
Meanwhile, something else was happening: Around 2,000 journalists had lost their jobs in Canada over the last year. Those job losses were against the backdrop of a kind of crisis of public knowledge. The American journalists Jonathan Rauch wrote a very good book about it called The Constitution of Knowledge. We’re seeing—in Canada, as in the United States—an increasing conflation of knowledge and belief; and it’s happening in tandem with the withering of conventional journalism, the rise of hyper-partisan digital-media startups, and the diffusion of propaganda outlets like the Russian network RT or newsroom-simulacrum operations from Beijing. This is what the media is like now—a strange universe with all of these constellations, in which the residential-schools story exploded last summer.
Vyse: How did it explode?
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Glavin: It really started with The New York Times. I don’t intend to be mean in saying this, because the Times wasn’t alone—but their headline was “Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada.” Then there was another headline. Then another. Then another. Before the summer was out, you could say that Canada was in its own George Floyd moment. There were marches and riots and statues toppled. Dozens of churches were vandalized. Several were burned to the ground. For a while, there was mayhem.
As someone who’d covered Indigenous affairs for a long time, I found all this striking. I’d co-authored a book with the survivors of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, and my first two books were set in what we used to call Indian country. But as I watched events unfold last summer, I saw that local Indigenous people—those connected to investigations at the sites of former residential schools, or what were believed to be the sites of former residential schools—weren’t saying anything like what the headlines were saying. By the end of the summer, there was reporting of 1,300 burials at or around residential schools, but the Tk’emlúps people were very explicit that they hadn’t found a mass grave at their site. They had preliminary findings that appeared to confirm what others had said about burials at an orchard, but Chief Rosanne Casimir was quite circumspect about the evidence, as was the archaeologist they hired.
National Film Board of Canada
National Film Board of Canada
More from Terry Glavin at The Signal:
There were stories about the former Marieval residential school in Cowessess in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley. One of the emblematic photographs of the summer is of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kneeling, holding a teddy bear, next to a flag in the ground at what we’re given to believe is a grave site there. The photo was taken after ground-penetrating radar had reportedly uncovered 751 graves, but they weren’t actually residential school graves. The site is a Catholic cemetery. It’s unknown how many Indigenous children may be buried there, as the local people and their chief were saying. Which is to say, the media got this story significantly wrong, in a way that directly contradicted what local Indigenous people were reporting.”
Nobody listens to Indigenous people—actual Indigenous people, living in Indigenous communities. The media regularly gives air time to Indigenous talking heads, who look Indigenous and have Indigenous names, and that’s fine; but nobody actually does the work of going onto the reserves and asking what’s going on. That’s one part of the problem. Another part is that when this work has, in fact, been done—I credit Jorge Barrera from the Indigenous unit of the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], for example—it’s been completely ignored.”
What’s happening now has less to do with the residential-schools legacy than with the preoccupations of a group of activists, academics, intellectuals, and journalists who insist there’s no way of thinking about Canada except as an irredeemably racist, colonial, capitalist settler state. I don’t see most ordinary people sharing these preoccupations, including ordinary Indigenous people who’ve had all kinds of different experiences with the residential schools. These experiences can be awful and complicated, and Indigenous people can have all kinds of different conversations about them with one another—and with non-Indigenous people—that don’t have to do with those preoccupations.”

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