By C.P. Champion
CAPTION: "The Last Jew in Vinnitsa"
THE LOCATION BY radar scanning of the remains of an estimated 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site was another grim image and reminder that much of the experience of native people in Canadian history has been tragic. Learning more about isolated school gravesites, one can only be saddened at the harsh lot endured by children far from home and by all innocent people who suffered and died from disease in epidemics. But it is if possible sadder still to see a grossly distorted and selective narrative taking grip of a large segment of society, one that threatens to empty “truth and reconciliation” of real meaning or effect.
Mass unmarked graves have evil connotations especially in the 20th century. In the forest of Katyn near Smolensk in April 1943, the German army discovered eight unmarked graves containing 4,443 bodies of Polish officers, each shot in the back of the head. Soviet propaganda blamed the Germans and Moscow did not admit responsibility for the murders until 1989, fifty years after Stalin’s invasion under the Nazi-Soviet friendship treaty of August 1939. Other mass graves have been unearthed in recent times, such as those of 1,200 Jews murdered in German-occupied Belarus, discovered in 2019. Spain’s Social Democrats have dug up some 800 mass graves in the past 20 years, doing their best to associate their centre-right opponents today with the long-defunct Franco regime.
Almost the entire media and social media class in Canada, however, seized on Kamloops as evidence of “Canada’s Holocaust,” as if the children had been deliberately killed or death were the norm rather than the very sad exception. What we are talking about here are "lost cemeteries," not hidden murder victims. As a correction pointed out in The Washington Post, "The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation says the remains were found spread out; it considers it an unmarked, undocumented burial site, not a mass grave."
Yet much of the political elite responded like a Pavlovian dog, and the near-universal assumption is now that such unidentified graves are proof that the government, nuns, or the pope were responsible for “genocide.” Teachers leading classes online implied that the children had been killed; this is now the norm in schools. Those Indian children who did somehow manage not to get wiped out by clergymen and the three R’s are now described as “survivors.” But anyone over the age of 40 knows that the term “survivor” was specifically used for “Holocaust survivor,” meaning European Jews not exterminated in the Shoah, and that the word has since been co-opted by others for its political emotiveness rather than its accuracy.
When The Dorchester Review remarked on Twitter on May 30 that most of the children likely died of disease (meaning they were not murdered), the mere suggestion was met with a huge efflux of ivory tower and Twitter gutter posturing about “denialism” seemingly from millennial activists unaccustomed to discussing things once they have made up their own mind. It is almost as if extremism is the new the mainstream where they are concerned. Certainly there is much about the Indigenous experience in Canada that they do not and cannot understand: for example, why do most Indigenous people embrace Christian religion today? Why is it difficult for people to differentiate remote gravesites at impoverished schools that experienced epidemics from the myriad scenes of mass execution during the Holocaust such as Babi Yar, a ravine where 33,000 Jews were shot by German soldiers and Ukrainian collaborators and dumped in unmarked graves in 1943?
LIKE THE totalitarian propagandists of history, activists do not hesitate to use the dead as ammunition to blast Canada as a racist and genocidal country. The momentum of the Sinclair Commission is in fact to keep the wounds always as raw as possible to prevent healing. Thanks to the multi-billion dollar grievance industry that has metastasized since the 1970s there can never be closure, a situation made worse by the Harper government’s failure to set any limit or time cut-off for claimants.
The Sinclair Commission reports are not the last word but rather a beginning where historians are concerned. We must hope brave researchers will emerge to bring a semblance of balance to the story of the schools. They weren’t ideal and were sometimes horrible, but they were a very far cry from concentration camps. It does seem pathetic in hindsight that they were the best method that Victorian do-gooders could devise but they put great faith in Progress. And the character of the schools changed over time. Was the quality of a typical school operating in 1897 really much the same in 1967? How much do we really know about that? As many successful Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit people’s careers in recent times demonstrate, this is one part of the story barely touched on by Sinclair’s work.
It is erroneous to call the schools “compulsory” with “the aim of forcibly assimilating indigenous youth,” as did the BBC, for example. Some were compulsory, others not. Only about one-third of native children in Canada ever attended a residential school, so they cannot all have been compulsory. Some teachers, then as now, were motivated by the desire to prepare youth, amidst the onslaught of industrial society and urbanization, for a decent career and good family life. People without education and skills, then as now, are at a disadvantage. There are former students on record who spoke their own languages freely at school, which casts doubt on the cultural genocide narrative.
Another ignored aspect is this: What was it like to be a teacher or administrator? Are there no diaries, letters, memoirs, or other such records? It is ridiculous to compare organizations of poor Oblates to machine-gun-toting Einsatzgruppen and Soviet NKVD. And it is equally false and unjust to act as if every single nun or priest or brother or Methodist minister and his wife was a child-abuser or sexual predator. Obviously no such person should be entrusted with the care of children (though it still happens today).
IT SHOULD BE possible also to acknowledge that the Indigenous renaissance and resurgence that began with the organization of groups such as the League of Indians in 1919, the Indian Association of Alberta in 1939, the National Indian Brotherhood in 1967, and the fruits of that activity such as the Red Paper of 1970 and so on, were possible thanks in part to Residential School education. It would be interesting to know how many of the 600-plus chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations today received such an education and how many were taught alongside non-indigenous people in urban settings, and how the proportions have changed over time. A sense of proportion is one of the things that is missing.
Anthropologist Scott Hamilton’s paper “Where Are the Children Buried?” reveals that such lost gravesites exist not because the teachers treated bodies as “detritus” (as Colby Cosh wrote) but because bodies need to be buried quickly in remote epidemic conditions whether one at a time or in larger numbers. “Some graves may lie unrecognized after the decay and disappearance of wood grave markers and enclosing graveyard fences,” he wrote. The lack of an individual burial for every child, which some have called a “basic human right,” should be less shocking to people who have witnessed families unable to hold funerals in the recent pandemic. Unmarked shared graves were the norm for the poor for centuries as in the Irish Famine and the Spanish Flu. Mass graves were reported in Iran and Brazil last year and in Africa during Ebola outbreaks. Many poor white Canadians were buried in “unmarked pauper’s graves” in the past, though no one likes the idea.
Everyone agrees that as many Residential School children’s remains as possible must be found, the causes of death determined, and their graves again properly honoured. However natural compassion should not be distorted into a Big Lie narrative that “we” committed genocide or that Canadians are complicit in their own version of the Holocaust. The experience of native people is part of a unique story for good and ill. Despite the anguish and heartache that the Sinclair Commission actually perpetuates, no one should be entitled to some unique aristocratic victim status in this country or eventually it will implode. Residential schooling represents neither a genocide, nor a Holocaust, nor mass murder. There is a vast gulf between Kamloops and Katyn, or Babi Yar, and we should not lose sight of that.
C.P. Champion edits The Dorchester Review. www.dorchesterreview.ca