From Katyn to Kamloops

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. 

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  • Daniel on

    This article was quite good and it is sad to see persons who wish to promote hatred and division fill up the comments. They are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

    Many appear to neglect a basic understanding of life then and now and appear to be part of a mass delusion that the government can prevent all deaths.

    Most appear to have grown up in the lap of relative luxury (when compared with persons in 1800s or first half of 1900s) not comprehending the widespread use of corporeal punishment in many Canadian schools. Nor the high infant mortality/childhood morality rates associated with pre-modern medicine.

    Many are coming off as children that wish to be able to fly and rage against God for not giving them wings.

    Persons dying of diseases are not great but what do you expect to be done? Are you one of those people that believe we should have had ZERO deaths from Covid? How if we cannot even have zero covid deaths could we expect no children to die from diseases What are your solutions? Other than calling reality racist?

    You just sound like white saviours that want to be mad about something to gain virtue points while exploiting the first nation’s people’s.

    Part of forgiveness is forgiving not for the other person’s sake but for your own sake to move past that event. Continually berating first nation’s peoples or black persons that they are victims might make you feel better, harms those communities.

    How would we be able to incorporate first nation’s peoples into Canada if there was not some shared language?

    Many comments that are being made are being made with hindsight and utopian tinted glasses.

    Not one person presented alternative stats that contradicted Champion’s article. Instead emotional arguments of ‘testimonials’ were presented in which some described the teachers as ‘most were sadistic’. Maybe by today’s standards the use of physical punishment one might agree, but that is today’s standards. Standards of then allowed for corporal punishment.

    Were the residential schools perfect? No, nobody is claiming that. Just as nobody would claim current schools are perfect.

  • Paul on

    I don’t think many commenters actual read it. It is a thoughtful informed piece that in no way attempts to justify the damage done by the residential schools. But making hysterical and false analogies serves no purpose, it becomes a contest of hyperbole that ignores truth in the quest to maximize virtue signalling.

  • Patrick Rodrigues Whitehorse on

    Speaking as a Metis who was taken out of a desolate community and into foster care by a loving Puerto Rican couple, I commend you for adding important historical context to the current discussion. FN people have a lot of problems that they refuse to own up to and deal with, instead deflecting and blaming the government and Church. Our country will be torn asunder at this rate, institutions destroyed for the sake of emotional blackmail.

  • Elaine on

    Thank you. I was screamed at by a bunch of hikers yesterday because when someone said ‘oh, did you hear…’ and there were gasps of horror all around the group I had the audacity to say that many children had died of TB and smallpox. I knew this when I was 7 years old! Under the parliament buildings in the original BC museum in the 1950’s there was a whole section devoted to BC’s native people and what had happened. Immediately they started screaming at me and one said ‘I have subclinical TB myself!’ If you can imagine, for heavens sakes, the native people had never been exposed to diseases of the newcomers and it should be widely known by now that they suffered and died as a result but no one intended this and it was virtually impossible to cope with in those times. Anyway, they told me I wasn’t welcome to walk with them if I wanted to entertain ‘conspiracy theories’ so I left. Absolutely ridiculous and a frightening demonstration of uninformed, irrational people who thrive on 2 second headlines provided by the newsfeed on their cell phones. Critical thinking seems to be a thing of the past. Sad, who knows where this will end… Thank you again for this article, much appreciated.

  • Mark Hecht on

    A thoughtful commentary. Perhaps too light on what the schools were intended to do - assimilate Indians. Perhaps not enough attention paid to the grand scale of historical nation-state building and the need, as galling as it is today, to assimilate minorities into cohesive “nations.” The same assimilative processes for example, were underway in France against the Breton. This is not just a Canadian issue. But overall, your article was a very good counter-argument to the emotionally charged narrative fostered by our increasingly pathetic mainstream media. One last point, as noted in your article, there seems to be an apparent “need to keep the wounds always raw as possible.” On this last note, it seems that if we do not have a cut-off timeline for grieving, then we will let these issues fester and tear us apart. What I find ironic is that traditional societies typically DO have a pre-determined grieving period-one year for the death of a spouse is common. After one year, the individual must move on and stop bemoaning the death or the rest of the society drops all sympathy and often isolates that person. I mean who wouldn’t? You can only tolerate someone’s belly-aching for so long. Of course, for a larger issue such as this at a grand scale, a longer grieving period seems obvious. Let them grieve, and then don’t. Time is up. Move on. I think three more years is enough and then “reconciliation” must be terminated.

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