How many more graves are there?
Over the past month Canadians have suddenly become experts in the various types of gravesites associated with Indian residential schools. This began with the rediscovery of a grave site at Kamloops, B.C., containing 215 bodies. The discovery was made using ground-penetrating radar and subsequent scans in other places have turned up 751 unmarked graves in Marieval, Saskatchewan, and 182 unmarked graves in Cranbrook, B.C..
The discovery of 1,000 graves has played weirdly in the Canadian political scene. Trudeau’s first instinct was to try and place blame on the Catholic church, who he claims are withholding paperwork on residential school burials. This backfired almost immediately when people started to burn down Catholic churches and Trudeau was forced to defend the institution he had just accused of covering up child deaths. The Conservatives issued a boilerplate statement of regret but then instantly took issue with anyone trying to ‘cancel’ Canada day over the matter, a clear sign that their main goal in all this is to avoid getting shouted at. It seems as though both main parties regard this as a political curve ball, and with an election looming this fall, neither side is confident in its ability to use the issue as a vote winner.
All the graves discovered so far are associated with residential schools, although the exact provenance varies from site-to-site. It is thought that the graves in Marieval and Cranbrook were marked when they were first dug, but the markers have been removed at some point in time (possibly in the 60s in the case of Marieval). The graves at Kamloops are possibly more sinister, Rosanne Casimir, the head of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, has said that she believes the graves discovered there are “undocumented deaths".
A confusing element of this series of discoveries is why there remain graves to be discovered at all. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada concluded its investigation into the residential school system and published its findings and recommendations. Part of the point of a truth and reconciliation process is that it should establish a historical ‘ground truth’ around which healing actions can be formulated. Counting the dead and locating final resting places obviously falls within this remit so why are we only finding out about these graves now?
Shockingly, the reason appears to be funding. The TRC report on residential school graves is available online. The researchers have obviously made an admirable effort to catalogue each residential school that existed in Canada and try to find the burial sites associated with each site. However, for schools that didn’t have a well-documented grave site location, the only tool used to try and find lost grave sites was examination of satellite imagery of residential school locations. The report is clear that for many of the locations they investigated they were unable to send a person to examine the site from the ground. This makes reading the report with hindsight somewhat chilling. For example, when talking about Kamloops the report summarizes; “In the case of Kamloops IRS, the facility was transformed into a cultural centre (Figure 29). Online research has not yet revealed the cemetery at the latter school”.
There are transformative discussions to be had about the legacy of residential schools, and what Canada owes to the First Nations people it brutalized. That discussion is the reconciliation part of truth and reconciliation. However, to even have a meaningful discussion about justice requires the government acknowledge the full extent of what was done. It will not be easy, as the discoveries in Kamloops and elsewhere have shown, once again, how difficult Canada finds it to tell the whole truth.
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