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. 

Older Post Newer Post

  • Kenny on

    To Mr. Champion, the author of this article, and to anyone who agrees with its contents:

    What would you call it if YOUR children, and all the children of your neighbors of the same ethnicity (but no children of citizens who were not of that ethnicity) were forcibly taken away from you by the government to attend a mandatory ‘re-education’ boarding school where they suffered systematic abuse and died of disease and neglect at a rate many times the national average? What charge would you level at the government if one of YOUR children died under this circumstance?

    Until you really carefully consider how you would react if your children were forcibly removed from your care, your apologia for this policy carries no weight. Seriously — what if it happened to you?

  • Timber James Freedman on

    Excellent article! I very much appreciate the historical perspective you bring to bear versus the wringing and gnashing of the prevailing narrative. How difficult not to view with cynicism the political machinations at play here. In response to the claims above that you are gaslighting the tragedy, any reader with a modicum of critical thinking will see the breadth of compassion in your essay. Journalistic integrity should not be forbidden, and I’m saddened by the attacks on your character for writing what seems a well measured article.

  • Craig Curran-Morton on

    Chris, some may use the terms “Holocaust” and “genocide” interchangeably, but your fixation on this misses the fundamental issue – That the policy of the Canadian government and many leaders in Canadian society since Confederation was one of cultural genocide against Indigenous Canadians.

    Throughout our history, Indigenous Canadians were (are still?) viewed as “savages” and less than. Many of our leaders, many lauded and praised politicians and otherwise, supported the basic approach outlined by Duncan Smith, Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs when he wrote “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question…” and wrenching children away from their parents and forcing them into residential schools would “civilize” them. This was not education, but it was one of the many aspects of cultural genocide pursued by Canada – remove the children, the language, the traditions, the culture in an effort to make them “white.”

    None of us are responsible for the actions of those that came before us. We were not there and could not contribute or control those actions. However, we are all responsible to learn about those actions and understand what they mean to the present so we can move to the future. It comes from acceptance, not white washing.

  • Bernadette on

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
    The finding of 215 unmarked graves of indigenous children is disturbing.
    Even more disturbing is the way so much of the population is so quick to judge the situation with negativity and hostility before knowing any of the facts, except graves found.

  • Ingo Herzke on

    I am a literary translator from Germany, I have just translated 3 of Richard Wagamese’s novels into German, and especially for his much-praised book “Indian Horse” I had to dive deeply into the history and the research on Residential Schools. I think you grossly misrepresent both the way these schools were run and the outcome of the school system in your article.
    As a German I fully understand and appreciate being wary of rash equations between that system and the Holocaust, mass murders and pogroms under the Nazis. These things are not the same. But to say that these dead children were just “normal” victims of epidemics just like other poor children of that era is simply wrong – they died because they were willingly exposed to these diseases and were not given any medical assistance that could have saved them.
    And yes, not every nun/priest/teacher at these schools was a sadistic criminal, but many were sadistic, and the rest knew about it and looked away. If you read all the reports and the accounts and statements of the survivors there is only one possible conclusion: not one single child in these schools was happy. Not one.
    And the assumption that “it can’t have been that bad, otherwise so many First Nations people wouldn’t be devout Christians now” is ridiculous, of course. Do you seriously think African slaves in the USA adopted and embraced Christianity because they were treated so well by their masters?
    One commenter before me maintains that “Too much of school history of Canada is taught from a progressive view which robs Canadians of a connection to the past” – again, speaking as a German I can assure you that quite the opposite is true. Only by truly and honestly acknowledging that terrible and racist things have happened in the past can a nation truly forge a wholesome connection to that past; otherwise it leaves a festering wound that never heals. That doesn’t mean that Canaca “is a racist country”, that a ridiculous and not very helpful generalisation; but of course there was and still is racism in Canada, and denying it won’t make it go away.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published