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Revisiting Canada’s collective guilt for mass murders that were never committed

On May 27, 2021, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that ground penetrating radar (GPR) technology had located the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School located in British Columbia, Canada.

The news was readily accepted and publicly grieved by every society figurehead and institution.

On May 28, The New York Times ran with the headline, ‘Horrible History’: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada.’

Three days following the press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology for those “whose lives were taken” at Kamloops. He ordered Canadian flags to be flown at half-mast and they would remain lowered for nearly six months, raised a few days before Nov. 11, only to be lowered again for Remembrance Day.

Pope Francis spoke of “the shocking discovery of the remains of 215 children” in his June 6 Angelus address.

Taking their lead from the Pope, church communities quickly reacted. In the following weeks, many congregations set out 215 pairs of child-size shoes on their front steps.

Between the half-mast flags and the little shoes, Canada was covered that summer by a pall of grief that extended from sea to sea to sea.

The grief quickly turned to anger. A wave of church burnings and vandalisms ensued. The violence continues to this day. According to the media outlet True North, some 96 churches have been burned, damaged or desecrated in the last two and a half years. As recently as December, two Alberta churches were burned to the ground. Trudeau noted that though burning churches was wrong, the anger was “real and … fully understandable, given the shameful history that we are all becoming more and more aware of.”

However, it seems that the high tide of collective guilt has finally started to pull out and the retreat has left behind the detritus of what some now say was a “moral panic.”

The incremental shift in public sentiment is in part due to the absence of bodies.

To date, no excavations have taken place in Kamloops, despite the federal government allocating CAN $7.9 million for the task in August 2021.

From the outset, the GPR findings cited in Kamloops were largely misunderstood by both the media and the public. Sarah Beaulieu, the GPR expert upon whose work the Kamloops First Nation based their claims, would later clarify that the technology does not provide x-ray images of coffins or bodies but merely shows ground disturbances. It would later be revealed that the orchard surveyed was the site of a septic field laid in 1924. It is noted that the tiles would have been placed at the depth of the disturbances picked up on the GPR survey. It is not clear whether Beaulieu was aware of these modifications when she was surveying the area.

In places where there have been excavations, no bodies have been discovered. At the Pine Creek First Nation in Manitoba, 14 sites in the basement of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church were excavated during four weeks in the summer of 2023. Chief Derek Nepinak announced on Aug. 18, 2023, that despite “anomalies” initially detected by the same GPR technology used in Kamloops, no human remains had been found.

The Pine Creek announcement led to the word “hoax” being used in the international press.

“I don’t like to use the word hoax because it’s too strong, but there are also too many falsehoods circulating about this issue with no evidence,” Jacques Rouillard told The New York Post.

Rouillard, professor emeritus in the Department of History at the Université de Montréal, is one of a stalwart number of researchers, jurists and journalists who began the painstaking work to counter the prevailing narrative.

Researcher Nina Green amassed and uploaded thousands of documents to the website Indian Residential School Records. Journalist Terry Glavin wrote a piece for the National Post a year to the day after the Kamloops announcement that, while not disregarding “the brutal sexual, emotional and psychological abuse inflicted on the institutions’ inmates” was clear that “not a single mass grave was discovered in Canada last year.”

In the newly published book Grave Error: How the Media Misled Us (and the Truth about Residential Schools), C.P. Champion and Tom Flanagan have assembled 18 essays from those who stepped out, often at great cost to their professional reputations, to bring clarity to the Kamloops claims and the wider questions of the residential schools and allegations of missing children or a physical genocide.

In their preface, author Champion and former University of Calgary professor Flanagan stress that while contributors do not speak with a unanimous voice, “all authors in this collection agree on the main point: that no persuasive evidence has yet been offered by anyone for the existence of unmarked graves, missing children, murder or genocide in residential schools.”

As the title suggests, the book examines not only the claims of mass graves of missing children from the schools, but the media buy-in that, in large part, drove the social panic.

Why did the international media, politicians and, indeed, Canadian Catholics fall so hard for a story that is now being likened to the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and ’90s?

Jonathan Kay, Canadian editor of Quillette, in an essay originally published in the online journal, writes that, “I was one of many Canadians who initially got swept up with all of this — in large part because it seemed as if everyone in the media was speaking with one voice, including journalists I’d known and respected for many years.”

Unfortunately, despite the widely available research referenced by the authors of Grave Error, journalists continue to couch their reporting in language reminiscent of the summer of 2021.

On Jan. 10, 2024, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) finally turned its attention to the dozens of Canadian churches that have been “torched and burned” and the dozens more that have been vandalized since the summer of 2021.

On the day the story aired, David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to the People’s Republic of China and past president of Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, posted the article to X/Twitter, noting that though coverage of the church burnings was long overdue, it was an example of “journalism CBC style.”

When Mulroney was asked why he is concerned by the tenor of the reporting, he responded that “the approach the journalist took was both familiar and disappointing.”

“Although we learned a few details about what seems a half-hearted police investigation, we’re also told that a ‘researcher and some community leaders suggest Canada’s colonial history and recent discoveries of potential burial sites at former residential schools may have lit the fuse.’”

But as Glavin, Champion, Flanagan, Rouillard, Green and others challenging the “mass graves” story are revealing, what Canada has experienced since May, 2021 is less a fuse than a fusion of political opportunism, sensational-cum-lazy journalism, anti-Catholic animus, and the spreading of now proven falsehoods to exploit the lives of innocent children – the living and the dead.


This article was originally published in The Catholic Register. It has been republished with permission. 

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