How Canada forgot about more than 1,308 graves at former residential schoolsFirst Nations are having to counter widespread claims that these are mass graves or that they were deliberately hidden
Author of the article: Tristin Hopper
Publishing date: Jul 13, 2021 • 1 hour ago • 8 minute read • 5 Comments
Recently installed solar lights mark 751 suspected burial sites found near the former Marieval Indian Residential School. PHOTO BY REUTERS/SHANNON VANRAES
The discoveries have become one of the clearest illustrations yet of something that has always been well-known: That Canada’s Indian Residential Schools spent nearly a century overseeing shockingly high rates of death among their students, with the bodies of the dead routinely withheld from their families and home communities.
But as news of the discoveries quickly circulated around the world, it has spawned assertions that the graves were deliberately hidden or that they are “mass graves.” Neither claim has appeared in statements from the First Nations who have announced discoveries of unmarked burials. “This is not a mass grave site, these are unmarked graves,” Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said at the June 24 press conference announcing the discovery of 751 graves outside Marieval, Sask.
In the case of Marieval and Cranbrook, reports have also ignored cautions from First Nations leadership that they are yet to definitively link grave discoveries to residential school fatalities. In Cranbrook, the Ktunaxa Nation has been explicit about noting that they are not yet able to confirm that the 182 suspected graves uncovered by radar contain the bodies of children who died at residential school. In their statement announcing the discovery, ʔaq’am — a band within the Ktunaxa Nation that uses the Ktunaxa language — said it was “extremely difficult to establish whether or not these unmarked graves contain the remains of children who attended the St. Eugene Residential School.”
As First Nations across Canada begin the delicate process of searching for their own forgotten cemeteries, they are also up against a public discourse that is wholly unattuned to the sheer tonnage of forensic work that will be needed to find the lost graves of Canada’s residential school dead.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report in 2015, the commissioners fully acknowledged that Canada was littered with forgotten cemeteries filled with the bones of children who died at Indian Residential Schools.
Given the soaring mortality rates at certain schools, coupled with the scattershot record-keeping of school administrators, Truth and Reconciliation chairman Murray Sinclair has estimated that total deaths could realistically range from 6,000 to 25,000 — well in excess of the 3,200 deaths that the final report was able to confirm through documentary evidence.
Commissioners also knew that many of these missing children were likely to be found in the soil surrounding former Indian Residential Schools. Throughout the century-long history of the residential school system, The Department of Indian Affairs resolutely refused to ship the bodies of dead children to their families for cost reasons. “It is not the practice of the Department to send bodies of Indians by rail excepting under very exceptional circumstances,” read one boilerplate letter to an Ontario residential school in 1938.
The Penelakut Tribe has not yet announced how it discovered more than 160 unmarked graves near the former Kuper Island Industrial School, but the rest of the 1,148 burials uncovered since May have been located using ground-penetrating radar surveys commissioned by local First Nations. While the method is not a perfect means to uncover burials or determine who is in them (the survey equipment can only tell if soil has been disturbed) it has a lengthy pedigree of accurately mapping out forgotten historic cemeteries.
A test of the technology in a 1970s-era German cemetery in 2009, for instance, saw a survey identify the locations of all 95 graves with only two false positives — an accuracy rate that researchers deemed to be “very high.”
On June 24, Cowessess First Nation’s chief said that they expected a 10 per cent margin of error in the survey that uncovered the 751 graves, and noted that some gravesites could contain more than one body.
From the 2009 paper “The effectiveness of ground-penetrating radar surveys in the location of unmarkedburial sites in modern cemeteries.” While the technology can only detect whether ground has been disturbed, it has a lengthy track record of finding unmarked graves.
There are a few reasons why so many residential school graves remain unmarked.
One is that they were never marked in the first place. At times of particularly high death rates, children were known to be interred in ad-hoc graves without proper markers or burial records.
During the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, Red Deer Industrial School principal J.F. Woodsworth assured his bosses that he was burying dead students “two to a grave” in order to save money. To this day, of 69 children known to have died at the Red Deer school, modern searches by Alberta’s Remembering the Children Society have uncovered only 19 graves.
A crew performs a ground-penetrating radar search of a field on the territory of the Cowessess First Nation. The survey would find 751 suspected unmarked graves. PHOTO BY HANDOUT
In other cases, children may have been buried in marked residential school cemeteries, but years of neglect following the school’s closure have left the sites overgrown and forgotten. In some cases, the Department of Indian Affairs even turned over cemetery sites to private or municipal developers. In 1963, for instance, the city of Brandon, Man., built a large civic park on top of overgrown children’s graves from the former Brandon Industrial School. Ottawa was either never told about the cemetery’s existence, or they didn’t care.
A decaying white cross lies in a small cemetery for children who died at Brandon Indian Residential School near one of three sites where researchers, partnered with the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, located 104 potential graves in Brandon, Man. PHOTO BY REUTERS/SHANNON VANRAES
It is not known if the 215 graves found in Kamloops were ever marked, but the radar survey commissioned by Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc found them in lands adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential Schools. “We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Tk̓emlúps Rosanne Casimir said in her initial May 27 statement.
In a follow-up letter on May 31, Casimir added “our community is still gathering all the facts in this evolving tragedy.” On July 15, the First Nation will be holding a press conference with more details on the 215 burial sites.
Complicating the search for Indigenous graves at former residential schools is that the cemeteries can also contain the bodies of staff and administrators. Although Indigenous children comprised the vast majority of people who died within the walls of a residential school, any white staff members claimed in the regular waves of tuberculosis outbreaks that struck the facilities could also find themselves in now-forgotten graves.
“A church mission was a mini-society … community members would be buried in the mission cemetery, as well as students who died at the school,” wrote the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Makeshift memorials placed outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on June 5, 2021. PHOTO BY COLE BURSTON/AFP
The now-lost cemetery for Saskatchewan’s Battleford Industrial School, for instance, contained several family members of school principal E. Matheson. Despite Matheson’s explicit pleas to Ottawa to preserve the cemetery following the school’s 1914 closure, it appears to have been swiftly overrun by stray cattle.
The factor overarching almost all lost residential school burials was the widespread use of cheap headstones for Indigenous graves. The notoriously tight-fisted residential school system earmarked only the cheapest wooden crosses for the children who died under their care, with the result that most graves decayed into invisibility within a generation or two.
Wooden grave markers being lost to the elements is a problem common to many Indigenous cemeteries, where wooden crosses were often the only markers that families could afford. Many Indigenous veterans from the two world wars, for instance, now lie in unmarked cemetery plots as a result of the original wooden grave markers rotting away.
Wooden grave markers seen at a cemetery on the territory of the Garden River First Nation in Ontario. PHOTO BY FILE
“Graves were traditionally marked with wooden crosses and this practice continues to this day in many Indigenous communities across Canada,” read a statement by the ʔaq’am Indigenous community after their discovery of 182 unmarked burials outside Cranbrook. “Wooden crosses can deteriorate over time due to erosion or fire which can result in an unmarked grave.”
Even when children who died at residential schools were interred in community cemeteries, their grave markers were allowed to rot away within plain sight, even as neighbouring graves were faithfully kept up until the present day.
One of the more notable examples is at the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Cemetery in Mission, B.C. Photos from 1958 show the suspected graves of Indian Residential School dead clearly marked by iron headstones. Now, those same graves are covered with blackberry bushes and a chain link fence.
In the case of the graves recently identified in Cranbrook and Marieval, respectively, the burials were both discovered within unmarked sections of still-active community cemeteries.
“Over the past years, the oral stories of our elders, of our survivors, and friends of our survivors, have told us stories that knew these burials were here,” Cowessess Chief Delorme said on June 24 of the 751 graves, adding “in 1960, there may have been marks on these graves.”
Soon after Delorme’s announcement, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina confirmed that in the 1960s, grave markers at the Marieval parish cemetery were destroyed by a priest who was angry with the then-chief of the Cowessess First Nation.
A group of women walk in the cemetery adjacent to where 751 unmarked graves were found outside Marieval, Sask. PHOTO BY GEOFF ROBINS / AFP
“Regarding the removal of gravestones and markers, Cowessess has told us that, in the midst of a dispute in 1960 between one of the Oblate priests and the Cowessess Chief, the priest bulldozed several grave markers in a way that we all find entirely reprehensible,” a spokesperson with the Archdiocese told the National Post.
As with many things related to residential schools, however, record keeping is sparse. The Marieval Residential School and the nearby cemetery were both overseen by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Oblates’ Ken Thorson told the National Post by email that a search of their archives turned up no records of the 1960s-era marker removal. “This is not to say one way or the other how the graves became unmarked, only that no information has been found,” he said.
The 182 graves found near Cranbrook were located on neglected ground adjacent to the still-in-use ʔaq’am Cemetery, which was formerly the St. Eugene’s Mission Cemetery.
In this 2019 photo, Margaret Teneese, archivist of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, stands in front of the former St. Eugene’s Mission School, which is now an Indigenous-owned golf resort. The 182 marked graves were located nearby in a 2020 survey. PHOTO BY PHOTO BY VAL FORTNEY
During routine maintenance work in the cemetery in 2020, crews uncovered an unmarked grave which then prompted ʔaq’am leadership to commission a more complete survey of the area, which yielded the discovery of the 182 burials.
Although the cemetery is near the former site of St. Eugene Residential School, it was also widely used by white settlers, including many who died at the nearby St. Eugene Hospital. In a statement, ʔaq’am leadership singled out these factors as reasons why they couldn’t be sure that the 182 graves belonged to children who died at residential school, and asked for the “public’s patience and understanding” as they did more survey work.
First Nations are having to counter widespread claims that these are mass graves or that they were deliberately hidden