Fighting ‘denialists’ for the truth about unmarked graves and residential schooling

This column is an opinion by Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, and Sean Carleton, assistant professor in the departments of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s announcement identifying as many as 215 potential unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

In the year since, the Nation has continued its work to honour and bring home Le Estcwicwéy (The Missing). Many visitors have also traveled to Kamloops in the past year to pay their respects and to show support for Indigenous communities grappling with the ongoing legacies of Canada’s Indian Residential School (IRS) system. 

While most of the reaction has been respectful, some immediately worked to discredit the findings. 

Politicians and journalists have openly engaged in residential school denialism. Denialists, to be clear, do not deny the existence of residential schools or even some of the harms of the IRS system. Rather, they seek to downplay or distort basic IRS facts and question the validity of ongoing research to shake public confidence and undermine truth and reconciliation efforts. 

Problem on display

This problem was on full display last week. The day before the Kamloops anniversary, the National Post published a column that suggested the public outcry over the past year was mainly the result of some journalists reporting the findings as “mass graves.” Communities have been clear that what is being identified are potential unmarked graves, but the column jumped on the error made by some journalists to then suggest that much of the response — both in Canada and around the world — was erroneous and unjustified. 

The New York Post took things further, interviewing prominent denialists to blast the entire situation as fake news and a deliberate hoax to cause outrage. 

Such stories spread disinformation and can shake people’s confidence in the investigative process. It shouldn’t, and here’s why.

It is true that, in the rush to report on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s announcement, some journalists — in Canada and abroad — mistakenly called the unmarked graves being located “mass graves,” inadvertently invoking the horrors of the Holocaust. But the vast majority, following the lead of Indigenous spokespeople, got it right, and people responded with shock and horror that thousands of children died at residential schools, some of them being buried in unmarked graves or graves that are no longer marked. At this point, no mass grave has been discovered, but more than a thousand potential unmarked graves have already been located, with many more Indigenous Nations just beginning their investigations.

Water soaked and weathered toys rest on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery as a memorial to the children who died at residential schools. More than 4,000 Indigenous children and youth died in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. (CBC)

Most importantly, an error made by some journalists does not change the fact that we already know more than 4,000 Indigenous children and youth died in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. Many of these deaths were reported in church and government records, and the TRC has made these findings publicly accessible in Volume 4 of the TRC’s Final Report. New research by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and other Indigenous Nations, including ground penetrating radar (GPR), could locate the burial places of some of these children, as well as add additional numbers. 

But it is important to clarify that GPR is just one tool being used to find the children. It can confirm soil disturbances and point to possible burials based on established scientific methods, but it cannot confirm the presence of remains or identify who was buried where. That’s not how the technology works. Other research tools are needed to comprehend the whole picture. Some Nations want to exhume to confirm and bring home the missing, while others don’t, and are instead relying on other kinds of evidence to get closure. 

A total count for the number of children who died or went missing will likely never be known. Many Indigenous Nations have asked for people not to focus on tallies — treating relatives as mere numbers, as was done in many residential schools — but instead to remember that every child matters. One child in an unmarked grave is one too many. 

Nothing to prove

Ultimately survivors and communities will make the decisions that best facilitate their healing. This is not being done to prove anything to Canadians; just because some people want to see exhumation before they believe the already documented deaths in residential schools does not mean Indigenous Nations are under any obligation to dig up their relatives to prove what we already know happened. 

Indigenous people do not owe anyone the bodies of their children. 

Residential schools are not fake news. There is no big lie or deliberate hoax. Just the complicated nature of what the TRC calls the “complex truth” that denialists are trying to twist. 

Fighting for the truth thus requires us to take residential school denialism more seriously. Denialism is, as TRC chair Murray Sinclair argues, the “biggest barrier” to reconciliation. It needs to be confronted at every opportunity. Taking comfort in delusions and disinformation will not advance healing and justice in this country. 

There is no shortcut. We need truth before reconciliation.

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