The National Post dishonours the thousands of missing children in unmarked graves with their biased and distorted views


In the space of one week on the anniversary of the discovery of 200 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School on May 27, 2021 the National Post published two articles:

  • May 26, 2022: “The year of the graves: How the world’s media got it wrong on residential school graves“. Terry Glavin
  • May 30, 2022: “First Reading: Why much of what you heard about residential school graves is wrong” Tristin Hopper

Both articles have the net effect of minimizing the discovery of unmarked graves and focusing attention away from the tragedy of the unknown number of children who never made it home, L’Estcwicwéý (the Missing). They are basically saying: everybody already knew about residential school deaths; due to cost constraints the students were buried in cemeteries that became run down over the years; they’re not mass graves, and all the cemeteries were already well known, so what’s the big deal!

Language can so easily be distorted to cast doubt on facts. Look at these words all used at the beginning of the Terry Glavin article:

  • ostensibly: “is stated to be true, though not necessarily so” in reference to “215 children whose graves…”
  • “Discovery” in quotation marks to continuously question the legitimacy of the news
  • purported: “appearing or stated to be true, though not necessarily so” in reference to news stories announcing several other discoveries
  • Except that’s not what happened” used explicitly three times in reference to the discovery of unmarked graves at Kamloops, other discoveries over the last year and Marieval where 715 unmarked graves were discovered

The best indicator of the National Post bias and distortions can be found in the “First Reading” summary of the relevant “facts” condensed from the Glavin article. Bold headlines are as they appeared in “First Reading”.

IT WAS NEVER A SECRET THAT MASS STUDENT DEATH WAS ENDEMIC AT RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

That’s not the point.

The secret is not the widely disproportionate number of deaths at residential schools that was well known but rather who were the children who died there and what happened to them? The federal government and church authorities perpetuated this secret through their intransigence over the years in allowing access to residential school student records. Only the discovery of multiple unmarked graves has forced the government and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate who managed all the schools in question to acquiesce finally and allow relevant Indigenous authorities access to records to try and determine what happened? To whom? When? Under what circumstance? And most of all, perhaps, where were they buried?

In addition to the above, some provincial coroner’s offices have not complied with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Call To Action # 71 “to deliver residential school death records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation”. As of Nov. 1. 2021 (Globe and Mail) so far, only B.C. and Alberta have fully complied, according to Raymond Frogner, the NCTR’s head of archives.

Both Post articles ignore the above reality and obfuscate the real issue behind the TRC Calls to Action 71 – 76 “Missing Children and Burial Information”: How to identify, document, maintain, commemorate and protect residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. Only then, along with the access to residential school records, can answers be found: Who died? When? How? Where are they from? And most important – where are they buried?

NOT ONE FIRST NATION CLAIMS TO HAVE FOUND A MASS GRAVE

Of course not.

First Nations leaders have always been quite explicit that what was found were unmarked graves. The media outlets that initially reported “mass graves” very quickly issued corrections and subsequent media reports all used the term ‘unmarked graves” and “undocumented graves”.

The National Post instead of following standard journalism protocols around “corrections” has instead made a deliberate choice to distort and amplify the false message around “mass graves” to negate the real message around “unmarked and undocumented graves” and the L’Estcwicwéý (the Missing) – who is buried there? What happened to them? What is the truth behind each individual grave? By focusing attention on the “mass grave”, both articles perpetuate the anonymity of the individual, an erasure of their individual truth through the distorted lens of a fabricated myth.

To continue the blatant distortion of reality, Glavin states that “in some cases, those local leaders had never even intended to draw any public attention to the ‘ground truth’ work they were overseeing….” The truth – all 10 residential school sites listed below that discovered unmarked graves over the last year all announced their discovery through very public events as noted.

MANY OF THE REDISCOVERED GRAVES WERE IN KNOWN CEMETERIES (AND SOME WERE FOUND TO HAVE INCONCLUSIVE CONNECTIONS TO NEARBY RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

First of all, the unmarked graves were not “rediscovered”. Second, what kind of cemetery the graves were located in is irrelevant. The cemetery is not the point. What difference does it make where an unmarked grave is found? The more important question is: who is buried there and why? The truth is that all the unmarked graves were found in the vicinity of an Indian Residential School and reported by the First Nation on whose territory the school was located:

Residential SchoolFirst Nation (FN)Date of Discovery# of unmarked gravesOfficial recorded deathsOfficial Release
Kamloops IRS, BCTḱemlúps te Secwépemc FNMay 27, 202120051Press release
Muscowequan IRS, SKMuscowequan FNJune 1, 202135Public ceremony
Brandon IRS, MBSioux Valley Dakota FNJune 10, 202110478Facebook Livestream
Marieval IRS, SKCowassess FNJune 25, 20217518News conference
St. Eugene’s IRS, BCKtunaxa Nation ʔaq̓amJune 30, 202118219Official Statement
Kuper Island IRS, BCPenelakut FNJuly 13, 2021160+120Online newsletter
St. Joseph’s Mission IRS, BCWilliams Lake FNJan. 26, 202293News conference
St. Philip’s IRS, SK,
Fort Pelly IRS, SK
Keeseekoose FNFeb. 15, 202212
42
22News conference
St. Bernard’s IRS, ABKapawe’no FNMar. 1, 202216910News conference
Gordon’s IRS, SKGeorge Gordon FNApril 21, 20221449News conference
TOTAL 1,762357
Indigenous Watchdog “Missing Children and Burial Information”: Current Reality

First Nation’s leaders have always been very clear that what was discovered were unmarked graves. They have also been very explicit in their announcements that the unmarked graves need to be explored more fully to determine the exact nature of what is buried there. The ground penetrating radar can identify soil anomalies consistent with graves but only excavation can confirm conclusively what is buried there.

After the initial discovery of 200 unmarked graves at Kamloops, the federal government announced that they would create a national advisory committee, made up of archeology, forensic, pathology and mental health experts, to advise Indigenous communities and the government about the work to find and identify the children. They would work in collaboration with the Indigenous protocols identified by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC to establish a national framework for investigation and protection of burial sites, consistent with the rights, laws, jurisdiction and protocols of the affected Nations. 

Only then do you start the painstaking process of excavation and the search for truth. As far as the National Post is concerned: no bodies equals no graves. No graves equals no story.

What else did the National Post article get wrong about this story of the unmarked graves (one of four over the last year), all of which minimized the tragedy of the missing children. The other two articles (not discussed in this post) are:

  • June 2, 2021: “The graves were never a secret. Why so many residential school cemeteries are unmarked? Tristin Hopper
  • Jan. 17, 2022: “What we don’t know about unmarked graves at residential schools“. Barbara Kay

What follows is from the Terry Glavin article and the First Reading summary:

That first story was ostensibly about 215 children whose remains were discovered in a mass gravethe New York Times headline illustrates the way the story was almost universally reported. Except that’s not what happened in Kamloops

WRONG. That is not how the story was “almost universally reported”. The initial press release – the first story – from Tḱemlúps te Secwépemc referred to “the remains of 215 children” NOT mass graves. To be sure, the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and even the Globe and Mail referred to mass graves but they were in the minority and they also corrected the story almost immediately. The vast majority of media outlets in Canada reported what the Tḱemlúps te Secwépemc press release stated: “The remains of 215 children…”

  • Global News: May 27 – The remains of 215 children buried…
  • Toronto Star: May 28 – The remains of 215 children have been found…
  • CBC: May 27 – Remains of 215 children found buried… 
  • Edmonton Journal: May 31 – The remains of 215 children were found
  • Vancouver Sun: June 2 – the unmarked graves of 215 children 
  • Montreal Gazette: June 1 – The discovery of the remains of 215 children 
  • CNN: June 1, 2021 – Remains of 215 children found buried…
  • etc. etc. etc.

To continuously refer to mass graves throughout the article is amplifying the false message that every other major media outlet repudiated almost immediately.

…a cascade of breaking news events purported to reveal several discoveries of what eventually added up to more than 1,300 child burials at other residential school sites across Canada. Except that’s not what happened in those places, either.

Then what did happen? By the time the article was written, May 26, 2022, 1,762 unmarked graves had been reported at 10 former residential schools all of which referred to “unmarked graves” NOT mass graves, NOT mass murder, NOT deliberate concealment, NOT “graves without any immediate links to nearby residential school sites”. Indigenous leaders, as the National Post correctly pointed out, were circumspect in acknowledging that much more work needed to be done to validate the initial results to determine more precisely how many of the graves were of residential school children as opposed to those of adults and/or non-Indigenous people.

But nothing new about the schools was revealed last summer… nothing new was added to the public record.

So what!

The news sure galvanized governments, churches and the general public to take action. The government completed three of the TRC Calls to Action within a month! Governments and churches promised to open up their archives and release long withheld residential school records; Pope Francis after initially refusing to apologize for seven years is now coming to Canada in July to make amends.

What was new was the increased pubic attention to the tragedy and their demand for stakeholders to take immediate action to address what had been avoided for generations. A Poll released by Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the Assembly fo First Nations and Abacus Data on June 15, 2021 found that 68% of Canadians were unaware of the severity of the abuses at residential schools or were completely shocked by it.

The Cowassess people noted from the outset that they didn’t discover any graves; the crosses and headstone had gone missing under disputed circumstances decades earlier; and ground-penetrating radar had been brought in to enumerate and pinpoint the location of each burial.

The structure of the above sentence strongly implies that the 751 graves were simply those that had their crosses and headstones removed and that the ground penetrating radar search was simply to enumerate those graves that were already known about. That is a blatant distortion. Chief Delorme also emphasized that the 1 meter by 1 meter graves – which is what you would expect for a child’s grave – were spaced in an orderly fashion.

Chief Cadmus Delorme at his news conference: “We have hit 751 unmarked graves. This is not mass grave site. These are unmarked graves.” Chief Delorme went on the repeat “unmarked graves” several times during his press conference.

Immediately after stating the facts about the “hit of 751 unmarked graves”, Chief Delorme added: Over the past years, the oral stories of our elders, of our survivors, our friends of our survivors have told us stories that knew these burials were here. This is the polar opposite of saying that “the Cowassess people did not discover any graves”.

Except it isn’t a just-discovered residential school burial ground. The graveyard where Trudeau knelt was a Catholic cemetery, a community cemetery. Children and adults, Indigenous and settler, were buried there, going back generations”.

The first thing Chief Cadmus Delorme said at his news conference: “In 1886, the Roman Catholic Church and the Oblates arrived on Cowassess First Nation. That is when the gravesite began. In 1898, the Marieval Residential School opened its doors…The Roman Catholic Church oversaw the gravesite.” At no time did he state that this was “a just-discovered residential school burial ground”.

Chief Delorme was quite clear in his opening statement and later in his address to the media that the cemetery was under the oversight of the Roman Catholic Church until 1970 and as such it also contained the graves of adults and settlers in addition to the children.

Cowassess Chief Cadmus Delorme told CBC news: “This is a Roman Catholic grave site. It’s not a residential school grave site.”

Chief Delorme is stating a fact. The cemetery was not exclusively a residential school cemetery. He was quite clear in his press conference that the cemetery was under the control of the Catholic Church from 1886 until 1970 and served many community needs including residential school children. He also stated that Roman Catholic representatives removed the headstones and crosses in 1960 which is a crime under Canadian law.

The case quickly turned out to be strikingly similar to the situation on Cowassess – it wasn’t about a just-discovered Indian residential school graveyard at all...

Neither Cowassess nor Aq’am stated that the unmarked graves were found on “just-discovered Indian residential school graveyards.” That was the National Post’s claim falsely posited as the First Nations. In fact, the CBC article referenced quite clearly states all the points that Glavin implies were missing:

  • Accidental discovery of an unmarked grave during “remedial work around the ʔaq̓am cemetery last year.” At no point does the CBC state that this is a “newly discovered residential school grave”.
  • The link to the clarification from Aq’am Chief Joe Pierre is embedded within the CBC article

Aside from the above problem, Glavin refers to sites where unsuccessful searches were conducted as if that was the norm:

  • Shubenacadie, N.S: Sipekne’katik First Nation brought ground-penetrating radar to the task of searching for graves. After a couple months of investigation, the only graves discovered were of settlers who were buried a century before the school opened.
  • Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton: After a summer of surveys and careful excavations at each flagged site, the work concluded in October after having encountered no burials

The following statement was the first highlighted point emphasized at the beginning of the “First Reading” article. Unfortunately, it implies that “the thousands of children who did not come home” are not really missing at all. They’re all buried on-site.

Thousands of children did not come home from residential school and were almost always buried on site, usually as a cost-savings measure

That’s not the point.

As stated by Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir (Chief), Tḱemlúps te Secwépemc on the first year anniversary of the discovery:

Since we learned of the likely presence of children, L’Estcwicwéý (the Missing) on the Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds, just over a year ago, Tḱemlúps has taken responsibility for them. We are exercising our inherent jurisdiction over the investigation at Tḱemlúps, to determine:

  • how many children are there
  • who they were
  • who their people are
  • how they came to be buried there
  • how they should be cared for, and
  • what justice needs to be sought on behalf of them and their families.

That is the point.

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