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Digging for the Truth about Canada’s Residential School Graves: Part One

To me, mass graves indicate genocide. It’s much more than cultural genocide. It’s actually genocide. Indian children were killed. Indian children went missing. All of that truth will be revealed” — Eleanore Sunchild, Cree lawyer and member of the Thunderbird First Nation

“We had concentration camps here…in Canada, in Saskatchewan – they were called Indian Residential Schools…We are seeing the result of the genocide Canada committed here. We will not stop until we find all of our children.” — Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations in Saskatchewan

If we say everything is a genocide, then nothing is a genocide.” — Irwin Cotler, chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

On May 27, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Indigenous band of Kamloops, British Columbia, issued a press statement of seismic implications, literally and figuratively. A ground-penetrating radar survey of the area surrounding the city’s former Indian Residential School, the band claimed, had located the “remains of 215 children who were students” of the school. Despite making explosive claims about “missing children” and “undocumented deaths,” the band was also careful to add that, “At this time we have more questions than answers.” Such a note of caution didn’t stop the media, politicians and nearly everyone else from acting as if they had more answers than questions.

The Kamloops discovery became Canada’s George Floyd moment. Almost instantly there were angry vigils, public displays of grief and shame, solidarity speeches and promises to revolutionize society as we know it. Flags on government buildings were lowered to half-mast on Canada Day, turning what was once a day of national celebration into one of national mourning and recrimination. Statues of former Canadian heroes were defaced, destroyed or removed, alongside more demands to rename streets and public schools. There were calls for yet another apology by the Roman Catholic Church. Some Catholics even claimed to have lost their faith over the announcement, as dozens of churches of many denominations were vandalized and burnt both on and off Indigenous reserves.

Canada’s George Floyd moment: Inflammatory allegations following a radar survey at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School unleashed a campaign of vandalism and destruction of churches and monuments across Canada. At left, the burned ruins of St.-Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church in Morinville, Alberta, and at right statue of the late Pope John Paul II at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Edmonton. (Source of images: The Canadian Press)

The furore attending the Kamloops discovery accelerated as subsequent findings were announced in other provinces, with the number of purportedly identified graves soon exceeding 1,000. Frequently heard among the many public demonstrations and outcries at these announcements was that they amounted to proof of a heretofore hidden “Holocaust” or “Final Solution” perpetrated by Canada against its Indigenous population. The Kamloops school was alleged to have been a “concentration camp” and the now-revealed burials evidence of a horrific crime.

Indigenous activist Robert Jago was particularly raw in his claims, writing in the National Post that, “It is not possible to look at the unmarked graves of 215 children that were uncovered on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School and deny the reality of Canada’s attempt at the genocide of Indigenous peoples. That this was a crime against humanity, and that the residential schools were created with malign intent is as true a fact as gravity or the sun-rise.” According to Jago, questioning the validity of his genocide allegations should be considered equivalent to “Holocaust denial” and punished as hate speech.

Such claims are not mere rhetorical flourishes. Many legal experts have since asserted that the Kamloops discovery and all other investigations into unmarked residential school burial grounds across the country should be treated as actual, live crime scenes. Following what she termed the “discovery of the bodies of 215 children,” Beverly Jacobs, acting dean and law professor at the University of Windsor, demanded that any church or government in Canada involved with the residential school system be immediately charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court.

X-Ray vision? Acting law school dean Beverly Jacobs (upper left) and Toronto criminal lawyer David Butt (upper right) both seemed to see evidence of criminality in a radar survey’s possible identification of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School, pictured at bottom circa 1930. (Source of lower image: Courtesy Archives Deschâtelets-NDC, Richelieu/ Kamloops This Week)

Similarly, David Butt, a Toronto criminal lawyer writing in the Globe and Mail, claimed “The discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the sites of former residential schools…looks and smells like criminal activity, and so these events cry out for serious and sustained professional investigation – and, where warranted, vigorous prosecution.”

Just the Facts

Serious concern over these recent findings is certainly warranted. The discovery of any graves should be handled with the utmost attention, particularly so in the present case given Canada’s fraught history with Indigenous people. But if we are to treat this country’s involvement with residential schools as a criminal matter, then surely we ought to heed the fundamental rules inherent to our justice system and all police investigations. Anything less would diminish the significance of the situation and undermine the opportunity for justice to be done.

Guilty until proven innocent? Many Canadians seemingly agree with the accusation that the Residential Schools system was criminal or even genocidal.

First, we must approach the matter with an open, unprejudiced mind. We must never take anything for granted. We must avoid a rush to judgement. We must check and doublecheck the veracity of all claims. And above all, we must be sure of our facts when making sweeping – especially inflammatory or condemnatory – statements. Innocent until proven guilty remains the presumption in this country, regardless of what many see as ongoing colonialism and white supremacy.

Despite all the allegations of criminality, public discussion of residential schools in Canada – particularly that portion of the conversation led by legal experts – appears to have ignored all these crucial precepts of our justice system. Rather, a set of unproven and contentious claims has apparently been accepted as fact. According to a Maru Public Opinion survey of online panellists, 55 percent of Canadians polled agreed that “given the context of the residential school era, what occurred was an act of genocide as opposed to an act of good intentions that had bad outcomes.” An astounding 81 percent said they agreed the International Criminal Court should investigate.

That most Canadians accept a horrifying accusation of genocide based on evidence that even the initial provider admits raises “more questions than answers” suggests emotion bordering on vigilantism has gotten far ahead of the facts in this matter. If we are prepared to treat this as a criminal matter, then we should go where the facts lead us. So what do we really know about those gravesin Kamloops and elsewhere?

Mass vs. Unmarked Graves

The first claim requiring a fact check is that the Kamloops findings constitute a “mass grave,” as Cree lawyer Eleanore Sunchild is quoted stating at the top of this story. For clarification, this term signifies that multiple bodies have been found in one large grave, pit or trench. Such terminology has been used repeatedly in describing the findings in Kamloops, including in influential newspapers such as the Toronto StarWashington Postand New York Times. It is categorically not true. “This is not a mass grave,” Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc band chief Rosanne Casimirexplained at a subsequent press conference. Rather, it is a collection of unmarked individual graves. (While the Toronto Star and Washington Post corrected their articles, the New York Times has not.)

Unmarked graves are not mass graves, and Residential Schools were not concentration camps. Pictured are the real thing. Left: exhuming some of the thousands of Polish officers murdered and dumped by the Soviet Communists in the Second World War. Upper-right: corpses at the Nazi Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Bottom-right: Iraqi forces recover decapitated bodies from a mass grave discovered after recapturing territory from ISIS jihadists near Mosul, 2016.

The distinction between a mass grave and unmarked graves is enormous. A grave can be unmarked for any number of reasons, including events that occurred long after interment, as we shall soon see. Creating a mass grave, however, is always a deliberate act. At its most benign, a mass grave might be necessitated by public authorities dealing with a mass-casualty event, such as a tsunami, fire or pestilence, when there isn’t time or resources to bury everyone individually before the bodies themselves become a public health hazard.

Other times, the reason behind a mass grave is far more sinister. As Candice Malcolm explained in a recent True North commentary, “Mass graves are a hallmark of genocide. They conjure images of pure evil…Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. These were truly evil leaders who used mass graves to cover their atrocities and crimes against humanity.” More recently, mass graves featured prominently in the Rwanda genocide and in areas of the Middle East briefly controlled by ISIS; the predominant image in these cases is of blindfolded victims lined up along the edge of a huge pit and falling in after being murdered. As Malcolm notes, “The use of the term mass graves [when speaking of Indian Residential Schools] is wrong, and it is reckless.” Quite so.

Unmarked but not Unexpected

Reality check: “The fact there are graves inside a graveyard shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone” — Sophie Pierre, former chief of the St. Mary’s Band.
 Another definitional issue involves claims or assumptions that these graves have been “discovered.” Despite the fact the Kamloops and subsequent announcements caught many Canadians unawares, most of these grave sites cannot be considered discoveries as the word is properly defined. Some may have been abandoned or neglected, while others have continued to operate to the present day, with only some graves going unmarked for various reasons. But even when unmarked or having fallen into disuse, they were almost always part of local knowledge. In her first press release, Casimir described the presence of the graves as “a knowing in our community that we were able to verify.”

The same goes for the identification of 182 unmarked graves by a ground-penetrating radar survey on the grounds of the former Kootenay Residential School near Cranbrook, B.C. about a month after the Kamloops announcement. In response to media alarm about the event, Sophie Pierre, the former chief of the St. Mary’s Band, noted patiently to all who would listen that “There’s no discovery, we knew it was there, it’s a graveyard. The fact there are graves inside a graveyard shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.” In most cases it was the ravages of time rather than overt racism or any other nefarious reason that caused them to become unmarked.

The St. Eugene Mission school in Kootenay was established by Oblate missionaries who settled there in the early 19th century. As elsewhere, a church and hospital were eventually built and the original cemetery became the graveyard for the entire local Catholic community. But this was no guarantee of permanency. As Chief Joe Pierre of the ʔaq’am, a neighbouring band in Cranbrook, explained, “Graves were traditionally marked with wooden crosses and this practice continues to this day in many Indigenous communities across Canada. Wooden crosses can deteriorate over time due to erosion or fire which can result in an unmarked grave. These factors, among others, make it extremely difficult to establish whether or not these unmarked graves contain the remains of children who attended the St. Eugene Residential School.” The fact that wood rots is not in itself a sign of malign intent.

Following sensational media claims regarding the Cowessess First Nation’s “discovery” of 751 unmarked graves around the Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan, band member Irene Andreas on the Facebook page of the Humboldt Journal offered this lengthy explanation of what transpired over the years:

Dear Folks, 

Our leaders today are addicted to media sensationalism. I can see how the Marieval graveyard news is causing a lot of heartbreak and emotional breakdowns. Please listen to your elderly folks as well.

We respected the Church. We respected the dead. We buried our dead with a proper funeral. Then we allowed them to Rest In Peace…

To assume that foul play took place would be premature and unsupported. There is no ‘discovery’ of graves. All your elders have knowledge of every grave. The Band office has records from the Bishop’s office, the Church board and from Cemetery workers who were in charge of digging graves and burials.

The Band office received a list of over 750 registered burials from the Bishop’s office. Information is being put out there that doesn’t recognize these facts.

So please, people, do not make up stories about residential school children being put in unmarked graves. No such thing ever happened.

Who Rests Here?

Many commentators have further rashly assumed that every grave uncovered on the grounds of a residential school represents the death of an attending student. While this might seem likely, or even logical, there is ample evidence suggesting it is not always the case. Regarding the St. Eugene Mission school in Kootenay, it is believed that the cemetery also contains the remains of the members of five neighbouring bands. As Sophie Pierre explains, “to just assume that every unmarked grave inside a graveyard is already tied to a residential school, we’ve got to be a little bit more respectful of our people who are buried in our graveyards.”

Chief Joe Pierre of ʔaq̓am Community explained: “Wooden crosses can deteriorate over time due to erosion or fire which can result in an unmarked grave.” Below, the cemetery at a former Residential School near Cranbrook, B.C., containing a mix of marked and unmarked graves.

According to Jon Z. Lerat, a Cowessess band councillor, neither do all the graves at Saskatchewan’s Marieval site contain the remains of Indigenous schoolchildren, as it too was used as a cemetery by the local municipality. After the announcement of the 751 unmarked graves, Lerat told the Globe and Mail, “We did have a family of non-Indigenous people show up today and notified us that some of those unmarked graves had their families in them.”

It should be remembered that residential schools were often part of a small and self-contained religious community. And in such cases, everyone within the community would likely be interred in the same graveyard. According to research prepared for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The cemetery at the Roman Catholic St. Mary’s Mission [near Mission, B.C.], was intended originally for priests and nuns from the mission as well students from the residential school. Three Oblate bishops were buried there along with settlers, their descendants and residential students.”

That students were given the same treatment in death as bishops speaks of respect, not neglect.

Canada’s Other Unmarked Graves

Unmarked graves are much more common in this country than most Canadians apparently assume. It is impossible to know how many people of all races and ethnicities who died a century or more ago did not have their final resting place marked in any permanent way, but it is no doubt substantial.

How racist was this? At the Roman Catholic St. Mary’s Mission in British Columbia, residential school pupils were buried alongside priests, nuns, local settlers and even three bishops. (Source:

Consider Kamloops’ Pioneer Cemetery. This graveyard contains the remains of the early, mostly-white, residents of the town dating from 1876 to 1901. Despite its significance, it has long since fallen into disrepair. Local historian Ken Favrholdt writes of the long struggle to maintain this plot of land: “Subscriptions were taken for the upkeep of the cemetery, but over the years it became overgrown, derelict and vandalized. Headstones were toppled…The area became used as a baseball park in 1949.”

While not every old cemetery will suffer the indignity of becoming a sports field, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar pioneer cemeteries throughout rural Canada that have been similarly neglected. Paupers’ cemeteries, in which individual graves are not marked, can also be found across the country. And ground-penetrating radar surveys of the areas around former federal penitentiaries and jails would likely reveal many more unmarked or forgotten graves of inmates as well.

Then there is the sad story of the “British Home Children,” some 100,000 offspring of destitute parents sent to Canada between 1869 and 1948 to work as indentured servants for farm families in rural areas. Many, perhaps most, were sent to Canada without their parents’ consent and lived in often terrible conditions, sometimes including physical or sexual abuse. Their last humiliation was to be buried in unmarked plots. Many of these have only recently and privately been commemorated.

Unmarked and unknown graves were the fate of millions. These included the so-called “British Home Children” (top left), depicted at their landing in Saint John, New Brunswick, and (right) untold thousands of Canadian soldiers who gave their lives in the world wars; in this instance the deceased’s remains were identified and reinterred. Pre-contact Indigenous funerary practices varied greatly and included tree burials (bottom left), all of which decayed over time, resulting in unmarked graves.

Even worse is the fate of tens of thousands of  unknownunmarked or poorly maintained graves containing the remains of Canadian soldiers of multiple races and ethnicities who lost their lives in two world wars, and today lie anonymous and alone in Canada and around the world despite having paid the ultimate price for their country.

Finally, it must also be acknowledged that permanently marking graves is 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, placing the remains in middens, earthen mounds, stone cairns, or above ground on platforms or in trees.

Today, most of these traditional burial sites are unknown and, if newly rediscovered, would have to be regarded as unmarked graves. When Indigenous people voluntarily converted to Christianity in the early colonial period, they adopted European burial habits which emphasize maintaining recognition and protection of the site, while retaining many of their traditional beliefs about the hereafter; this blending of theology and practice is called religious syncretism.

Recognizing the multiple realities of unmarked graves throughout Canada does not mean we should ignore or downplay the significance of finding unmarked graves around former Indian Residential Schools. All graves should matter. But the vast number of unmarked non-Indigenous graves across this country suggests caution should be exercised before declaring the discovery of unmarked graves near residential schools to be conclusive evidence of systemic racism or criminality – much less that a campaign of genocide was underway.

The Rules for Identifying Genocide

For Canadians who believe in the inherent fairness and goodness of their country, no accusation arising from the Kamloops discovery is as painful as the allegation of genocide. It is the worst crime any country or people can commit. Lately, however, it has been thrown around with the frequency of a schoolyard insult. But words should mean something, and the meaning of genocide is very specific.

The universally accepted means for determining the existence of genocide comes from the United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It set a rigorous standard with clear definitions. Article 2 states that genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Calling it genocide doesn’t make it so. Top right, Ottoman military forces march Armenian men from Kharput to an execution site outside the city during the 1915-1916 Armenian genocide that killed over 1 million. Bottom right, bloodied clothes taken from Tutsi victims of the Rwandan genocide, in which 500,000-800,000 were slaughtered in fewer than 100 days. Left, former federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler warned against careless use of the term “genocide.” (Source of top right image: Courtesy of the Armenian National Institute)

We will deal with the issue of “forcible transfers” in Part Two of this series. For now, it is enough to recognize the salience of “intent.” According to the UN Convention’s formal post-1948 commentary, “To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice.” (Emphasis added)

It is because of the specificity concerning intent and cultural destruction that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report, issued in 2015, could not declare the residential school experience a genocide. Instead, it employed the elastic concept of “cultural genocide,” a phrase with no accepted legal standing. Despite this, many commentators have chosen to drop the adjective “cultural” and claim the residential school system was genocidal regardless.

But it is impossible to compare the experience of Canada’s residential schools students with the well-documented genocides perpetrated against other people such as the European Jews, the Tutsi of Rwanda or the Armenians of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Recall that the Turks brought about the deaths of approximately 1 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917, while in Rwanda between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsi were slaughtered, often with machetes, in the astonishingly short period of less than 100 days beginning on April 7, 1994.

Academic efforts to liken Canada’s experience to these horrific examples of rampant slaughter and bloodshed does great harm to the fundamental meaning of genocide, as former federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, cited at the top of this story, has warned. Consider that there has not been a single verified murder of a child at any Indian Residential School throughout the system’s long history.

Given the importance of intent in identifying a genocide, it is also necessary to contemplate the broader sweep of Canadian policy towards its Indigenous peoples. Had the federal government truly formed an intent to wipe out Canada’s Aboriginal population, such a terrible thing would have been relatively simple to implement. Yet the government often acted with the best interests of the native population in mind, even if the outcomes were not always ideal.

Consider, for example, that Prime Minister John A. Macdonald quadrupled Ottawa’s native budget to deal with the crippling Western famine in the early 1880s. This event was caused by the collapse of the Prairie bison herds, an outcome over which Canada had absolutely no control; nonetheless, Macdonald mustered substantial government resources to meet the challenge. If his critics today claim he did too little, they cannot argue that he did nothing. Consider also that Ottawasuccessfully vaccinated almost the entire native community against smallpox at great expense and effort, virtually wiping out this highly contagious killer among a people with no natural immunity to the disease. If the federal government had truly wanted to rid Canada of its Indigenous people, it would not have fed or vaccinated them.

The Limitations of Ground-Penetrating Radar

The recent application of ground-penetrating radar to the search for unmarked graves has lent a scientific imprimatur to what was once a matter of oral and archival history. No doubt this has played a significant role in boosting the credibility of current claims made regarding criminality at residential schools. Yet we must be careful to avoid a false sense of precision as a result of this technology’s appearance.

“Not like an X-ray”: As University of Alberta anthropologist Kisha Supernant (lower left) explains, ground-penetrating radar (top) “doesn’t actually see the bodies.” Sarah Beaulieu at the University of the Fraser Valley (lower right) similarly cautions that “[burials] are probable, until one excavates.”

It is important to understand that ground-penetrating radar can only determine the presence of disturbed soil. It can’t identify bodies, let alone count them, determine their age at death or answer the question of whether the bodies were “dumped” or given a proper service. As Kisha Supernant of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta explained to the National Post, “When a grave is dug, there is a grave shaft dug and the body is placed in the grave, sometimes in a coffin, as in the Christian burial context. What the ground-penetrating radar can see is where that pit itself was dug, because the soil actually changes when you dig a grave.”

That is all it can do. As Supernant notes, the technology “doesn’t actually see the bodies. It’s not like an X-ray.” Moreover, the technology cannot even discern organic matter. News of this technological limitation likely comes as a surprise to the many legal experts, such as the University of Windsor’s Jacobs, who rashly claimed “bodies” had been found.

A proper appreciation of ground-penetrating radar’s actual abilities has led experts to clarify initial allegations made to and by the media. What was first reported as the “remains” of 215 children in Kamloops was later revised downward to 200 “probable burials” or “targets of interest” according to Sarah Beaulieu, the University of the Fraser Valley anthropologist and ground-penetrating radar specialist who initially conducted the survey. Beaulieu cautioned about “multiple signatures that present like burials,” but “we do need to say that they are probable, until one excavates.”

Beaulieu’s investigation has so far covered 2 acres, or about 1 percent of the total 160-acre grounds of the Kamloops Residential School over a period of four days. The remaining area will clearly take much longer to fully survey. Excavation of any individual suspected graves and the forensic analysis of the results could take several years.

A Lengthy and Time-Consuming Process Awaits

It should now be clear that many of the questions posed by the finding of residential school graves have not yet been answered. Uncovering the truth will be a time-consuming process. And as that unfolds, all parties involved must be expected to abide by the basic rules of justice to ensure that a full, independent and unbiased investigation can be conducted. But there are reasons to worry that this may not be allowed to occur.

Consider recent criticism of the RCMP’s involvement in the Kamloops discovery made by Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sinclair claims the officers’ habit of interviewing survey participants is “intimidating.” According to the CBC, Sinclair said the Mounties should “not be pursuing those who are revealing information,” such as researchers. Yet such inquiries are necessary to properly separate factual truth from speculation, exaggeration or error (like the use of “mass graves”).

Then how to separate the facts from myth and emotion? Both Murray Sinclair, former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (left), and Perry Bellegarde, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (right), have criticized the police investigations triggered by the Kamloops discovery.

Former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde has similarly argued that, “this [looking into the burials]…is spiritual work. It has to be done properly.” Bellegarde has not defined what he means by “done properly,” although high-profile Globe and Mail columnist Tanya Talaga offers a clue. Talaga, a vocal proponent of the idea that the operation of residential schools was genocidal, recently argued that, “The federal government or any colonial entity cannot be put in charge of how this recovery process is going to look…Government bureaucrats can be nowhere near this.”

Declaring police, government and other trusted fact-finding institutions off-limits from any investigation into the residential school burial issue is highly problematic. Victims can never be allowed to control any criminal investigation, regardless of how much sympathy they may engender. All Canadians deserve to participate in the search for truth, particular given the serious allegations of genocide and other misdeeds made against our whole society.

And until we know more, commentators should abjure volatile language such as “genocide” and cease trivializing terms like “the Holocaust.” With Canada’s reputation as a law-abiding and peaceable country now in question, it is imperative that no limitations be placed on who can participate in this investigation, what questions they can ask and where they can go for answers. We are all party to this case.

As we await the outcome of a full, proper and no doubt time-consuming investigation, Canadians should take the time to better educate themselves about what we do know about the history of Canada’s residential schools. Much of that comes from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other verifiable aspects of Canada’s historical record, as we shall see in Part Two.

This article was originally published in C2C Journal. It has been republished with the author’s permission. The original article can be found here:

Source of main image: The Canadian Press/ Justin Tang

Read more from Hymie Rubenstein here:

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