Hymie Rubenstein & Pim Wiebel analyze claims from the Blue Quills Indian Reserve
LURID TALES OF MURDER carried out against students by employees at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (IRSs) have been circulating for years now, even though none have ever been formally investigated, much less proven. Still, the stories keep proliferating and even getting more gruesome the further removed they are from their occurrence based on “indigenous knowings” told by paid elders and knowledge keepers.
"Most conspiracy theories and their proponents are eventually exposed. In due course, this one will be debunked as well."
This is not to imply the absence of cases of residential school staff using excessive force to discipline students or otherwise betraying the trust placed in them for the care of the children. It would be astonishing if such things had never occurred in a school system that employed thousands of workers spanning a period of over 100 years, not the least because harsh punishment and sexual exploitation took place in non-indigenous boarding schools during the same era. Nevertheless, invoking unfounded allegations of homicide to bolster the outrageously fraudulent claim of residential school genocide is not only painfully misguided, but wickedly wrong.
Among the latest of the macabre tales concerns students at the former Blue Quills IRS on the Saddle Lake Indian Reserve some 170 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, Alberta. The students are said to have been purposely infected with tuberculosis by feeding them tainted milk, a claim recently uttered by Leah Redcrow, executive director of the Reserve’s Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS), an organization funded by Library and Archives Canada, whose mission includes searching for any unmarked burial sites of deceased Blue Quills IRS students.
According to Redcrow, in a January 24, 2023 CBC news item titled Tainted milk led to deaths of Alberta residential school children based on an AOS report, “We feel that these children [at Blue Quills] were being deliberately infected with tuberculosis,” a hideous accusation we have debunked elsewhere.
But this leaves unanswered the larger question of the alleged murder by other means of Blue Quills IRS students.
The story of these murders began in 2004 when the community discovered what it believed to be a mass grave. "The mass grave had numerous children-sized skeletons wrapped in white cloth. This could possibly be from when there was an outbreak of typhoid fever in the school," according to Saddle Lake band council member Jason Whiskeyjack.
The AOS report claims ground-penetrating radar [GPR] in October 2022 was used at the site of the Sacred Heart Cemetery, a graveyard on the Saddle Lake Indian Reserve where Blue Quills students who were from Saddle Lake were buried that confirmed the existence of the remains of children:
On May 17, 2022, the Saddle Lake Cree Indian Reserve also revealed that “new archival work has helped explain numerous discoveries of human remains that it now believes are the unmarked graves of residential school students.”
The discoveries of partial human remains were accidentally found during ground excavations for new burials in the community's cemetery located near the former Blue Quills residential school site.
While community members who discovered the remains allegedly didn’t understand the implications of their discovery and therefore reburied the skeletal remains, a team tasked with investigating burial sites connected to the school now says community gravediggers have been uncovering the shallow, unmarked graves of children between the ages of four and 10 who attended the school.
"There were children-sized skeleton remains that were excavated. None of these skeleton remains were in caskets," Whiskeyjack said at a news conference.
This may have prompted the Saddle Lake Cree to create the AOS in 2021 to investigate possible burial sites, among other activities. Lead investigator and residential school attendee Eric Large and his team are said to have also started compiling witness statements from community gravediggers who had disinterred the bodies. As well, they have contacted people who claim to have missing family members.
Large said the Catholic Church archival records that have been obtained by investigators show that 212 students between the ages of 6 and 11 died at the school — “school children who never came home” and “whose remains are still unaccounted for” — between 1898 and 1931. The number vastly outstrips federal records, which accounted for about 25 student deaths, he said.
The investigative team has previously said it believes there are even more children missing than the 212 they claim have been accounted for in church records. It also said that “in the past, many families were afraid or unable to speak out when a child never returned home from school. … When all of these children went missing, there was nothing that anybody could do," Large said.
Then on January 24, 2023, AOS announced it has uncovered “physical and documented evidence of a genocide” based on details of its preliminary report into "missing children and unmarked burials" at the former site of the original Blue Quills Residential School.
"The investigation's theory regarding the missing children of the Saddle Lake site, is that they are buried in undocumented mass graves," the report states.
"One of the undocumented mass graves was located by accidental excavation, in 2004, at Sacred Heart cemetery. The mass graves will require a second excavation, and repatriation of remains followed by the identification by the coroner once DNA is collected from living descendants."
The report includes allegations that an unnamed "disciplinarian" who worked there from 1935 to 1942 was actually seen killing children. "The investigation has received disclosures from intergenerational survivors, whose parents witnessed homicides at the Saint Paul site," the undisclosed report states.
That staff member is accused of pushing boys down the stairs, killing them. "[He] would then threaten to kill the boys that witnessed if they said anything," it also claims.
While there is much work yet to be done, Redcrow said the alleged release of the AOS’s 44-page preliminary report — a document not found on its website but which claims it will be released “soon” — was important to provide survivors and families with what has been learned so far.
How credible are any of these many assertions?
Ground Penetrating Radar
Although GPR can detect sub-ground disturbances and is particularly useful in discovering unmarked graves in known cemeteries, it cannot confirm the presence of burial plots or human remains. Indeed, its intrinsic limitations were announced soon after the following sensational press release on May 27, 2021:
“It is with a heavy heart that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 [Kamloops band] (Chief) Rosanne Casimir confirms an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented by the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This past weekend, with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist, the stark truth of the preliminary findings came to light – the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”
In a live news conference sponsored by the band on July 15, the GPR technical specialist, Sarah Beaulieu, who performed the search just days before the preliminary results were made public, clarified Casimir’s press release by not only reducing the number of “probable gravesites” from 215 to 200, “taking into account previous excavation work that had been done in the area that could have influenced the results,” but stressed her findings cannot be confirmed unless excavations are done at the scene: “Which is why we need to pull back a little bit and say that they are ‘probable burials,’ they are ‘targets of interest,’ for sure.”
Racelle Kooy, a spokesperson for the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, said a full copy of Dr. Beaulieu’s report would not be released to the public and media, but that “the core of the findings are contained in the release and Dr. Beaulieu gave an extensive presentation today.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, partly seen from the fact that not even a redacted copy of her report has been released to date just as none of the reports of identical searches all across Canada have never been released for public and professional scrutiny.
More important still, there is credible evidence the 15 “probable burials” removed from the list, and likely all the rest of the ground disturbances at the abandoned apple orchard at Kamloops, are the result of historic excavations related to the installation of sewer and water infrastructure.
All these assertions about the Kamloops “discovery” apply equally to Blue Quills.
It would be amazing indeed if graves were not found if a decision was made to excavate all the unmarked soil anomalies at Sacred Heart cemetery, if only because graveyards are supposed to contain bodies of the dead. It is unlikely, however, that the graves would be a single mass burial containing the remains of groups of Blue Quills students. A review of the death dates of the Blue Quills students listed in the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Memorial Register discussed below shows that there were no instances in which more than one death occurred over a short period of time.
Although it is unlikely that deceased Blue Quills students were buried in mass graves, such a finding would not represent an anomaly in either Canada or elsewhere. Mass burials were common around the world during epidemics because the risk of contagion and the lack of resources for customary funerals often necessitated quick and unceremonious interment:
“Undertakers [during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-19] did not have enough room to store the bodies of those who had died, and in many cases flu victims were buried in unmarked or mass graves. Walk deep enough into an old city graveyard in Canada and you will likely find unnamed flu victims.
“During its peak, undertakers and gravediggers could not keep up with the work as hearses and coffins fell into short supply. In some places, funerals were limited to 15 minute gatherings; in others, bodies were buried in mass graves without ceremony.
“The mass grave [at Burlington Heights, near Hamilton] is known as the ‘cholera field’ where the deceased were simply dumped, then covered in lime. Not only were there no coffins, but bodies in this location were buried without markers to identify them or as a sign of remembrance. Obviously, the use of the segregated pit saved time, space and prevented contamination... there is another burial location at the cemetery [in Hamilton] for Spanish flu pandemic victims…Not much is known about those victims either, although there was an attempt at using ground penetrating radar with inconclusive results several years ago.”
How Many Died?
Another false allegation concerning mortality at the Blue Quills Residential School is cited in a May, 2022 CBC article: “...Catholic Church records obtained by investigators show that 212 students died at the [original Blue Quills] school between 1898 and 1931.”
The assertion of 212 deaths is a huge exaggeration. As noted in the same CBC article, Catherine Warholik of the Diocese of St. Paul stated that the records provided to the investigative team were for the entire parish, not specifically for the residential school.
Nearly all cemeteries where residential school students were buried, including cemeteries like Sacred Heart, were reserve cemeteries for the entire community. Since a minority of children attended residential school, most of the children buried in Sacred Heart Cemetery would not have had any association with the Blue Quills Residential School. They would have included pre-school age children, students attending the Saddle Lake Indian Day School, children who never attended school at all (some one-third of band school-age children never went to any school), and former Blue Quills students who died after leaving the school. (Enrollment at Blue Quills was 45 in 1915 and peaked at about 200 in the 1960s.)
Moreover, enrollment numbers were always far less than half of the school-age population of the Saddle Lake band. And enrollments included students from other bands who would have been buried in cemeteries on their home reserves.
It is also often asserted that the students who died at residential schools are “missing.” The students who died while enrolled at Blue Quills Residential School are not missing. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) Memorial Register lists 27 students who died at the school over its 99 year existence. All these students, two with no names, died before the end of the Second World War. Although no other information is given, an independent researcher has found that the death certificates of 19 of them. In reviewing the certificates, it was found that 22 of the names on the NCTR list of 26 names belong to children who were Blue Quills students at the time of their death. Moreover, one was a 34-year-old male “widower,” another was a 29-year-old “married woman,” and one was an infant under the age of one. One student is listed twice.
Indeed, the death certificates provide the name of the deceased, the names of the parents, the date and cause of death, and the place of burial. They also include information such as the name of the physician who attended the student and the name of the coroner. All certificates are signed by the informant, or, in many cases, a parent or other close relative. The cause of death was always disease, most often tuberculosis. Nearly all the children died in hospital or at home, not in the school’s infirmary. All were buried at Sacred Heart cemetery or at cemeteries on their home reserves.
There is no credible evidence of student deaths at the Blue Quills IRS beyond the 19 for whom death certificates have been found.
Was There Widespread Abuse?
As mentioned above, the CTV article published online in January 2023 cites another spurious allegation of heinous wrongdoing at Blue Quills taken from the AOS, namely, “allegations that a ‘disciplinarian’ who worked there from 1935 to 1942 was seen killing children…That staff member is accused of pushing boys down the stairs, killing them.… [T]he accused died in 1968.”
The comprehensive NCTR archives for the Blue Quills IRS contain no mention of any conviction for physical or sexual abuse at the school. Neither the NCTR archives, nor the TRC reports, refer to an allegation of boys being pushed down a flight of stairs by a staff member. Surely the boys’ parents or close relatives would have learned of the alleged staircase homicides and inquired as to why the children had not returned home. It is unimaginable that having been told of the deaths, that they would not have sought answers. The fictitious nature of the story is further supported by the death certificates for children who died at Blue Quills during the years the accused staff member was employed at the school showing that four were boys, and that they all died of tuberculosis or other diseases.
This Blue Quills “indigenous knowing,” like others such as the tale of murders by priests at the Kamloops IRS and young children being forced to dig the graves in an apple orchard in the middle of the night, is another instance of a crude allegation thrown out without evidence or verification, and with the express goal of denigrating this boarding school. Like many fantastical claims invented to discredit a person or institution, the lurid tales of homicide at residential schools are based on murky rumours at best. Often, they are simply outright fabrications. No matter how far-fetched, the allegations are sometimes difficult to disprove simply because they are unfalsifiable because they are on myths, not facts. Accordingly, they have become part and parcel of a widely accepted residential school mythology, a mythology that pictures the schools as institutions of abject abuse, murder, and genocide.
The executive director of the AOS, Leah Redcrow, makes another astounding claim in the same CTV article where she states: "I myself didn't know that my grandfather had 10 siblings die in this school."
This would mean that nearly half the 22 deceased students at Blue Quills were members of the same family. It should be noted that no family name on the NCTR memorial list appears more than three times. Almost all surnames, including Redcrow, appear only once.
Creating false narratives to buttress the charge of residential school genocide does not advance the essential “truth” part of the truth and reconciliation equation. Rather, it serves as a theatrical distraction from a focus on finding solutions to the real problems indigenous people face today. The current government’s policy of unbounded spending on “Indigenous Priorities,” purportedly to alleviate the impacts of colonization and residential schools, only deepens aboriginal people’s sense of dependence and victimization. The consequences are evident – growing gaps in life expectancy, poverty, education outcomes, incarceration, and mortality from drug overdoses. A fundamental question must be asked: Can the current regime in which over 600 scattered, “sovereign First Nations” and more than 3,000 reserves exist under the apartheid construct of the Indian Act and sustained for the most part by external government resources, be expected to offer a better future for indigenous people? An honest consideration of that question would most definitely point to the need for sweeping reforms — reforms that the government and aboriginal leadership, vested as they are in self-serving interests, would be sure to resist.
The May 17, 2022 CBC non-breaking news story — “Discovery of human remains near residential school site likely children, say investigators” — would have earned global headlines had it appeared at the same time in 2021. Now, even with the additional evidence presented above, many readers will simply sigh or roll their eyes, not because of genocide fatigue, but because more people are recognizing that the whole IRS student burial issue has been exaggerated beyond belief by the following parties: lazy, shock journalism reporters, including all those employed by the CBC; rent-seeking indigenous leaders; 4-Ps (power, privilege, prestige, and prosperity) addicted indigenous advisors, consultants, and lawyers also seeking their share of the rent; “woke” humanities and social science academics; and compliant politicians using virtue signaling rather than concrete policies to solve the myriad of aboriginal adversities and pathologies.
More particularly, no one should be surprised that:
- dead bodies are found in known and named community cemeteries.
- there are countless unmarked graves in graveyards around the country whose wooden markers and cheap wooden coffins used by the poor disintegrated long ago.
- the remains of children of all ages can be found buried in graveyards.
- mass graves were routinely dug during times of plague to quickly bury infected bodies.
- mass graves almost never contained coffins.
- there was a very high death rate 140 years ago among indigenous children on the reserves and in the residential schools given their higher susceptibility than European children to imported diseases during the pre-vaccination era.
- even today, there is a higher death rate among indigenous children than non-indigenous: “For most people in Canada, the risk of developing active TB is very low. However, the rates of active TB are higher among Indigenous peoples in Canada. The rate of TB in Inuit Nunangat is more than 300 times higher than in the Canadian-born, non-Indigenous population. The rate of TB among First Nations living on reserve is over 40 times higher than the Canadian-born non-Indigenous population.”
- most IRS children did not die at their schools but were sent to a nearby hospital for treatment or to their home reserves when they became very ill; if they died at home, they were buried in their reserve cemetery.
- if they died at a hospital, they were also sent home whenever practical.
- there is no mention of or question about how many skeletons have been unearthed in the Blue Quills community cemetery: any minimally competent reporter would have asked, "How many bodies are we talking about?" If they were wrapped in cloth, the bones would be held intact; if not, there would be skulls and spines making it easy to determine how many were buried.
- many or most of these skeletons may not even be those of children; they could be women who typically have smaller frames, possibly akin to that of a strapping ten-year-old boy.
- stories of Blue Quills IRS being a school full of murder and other horrors need to explain why, as the NCTR has written, “When the federal government announced that it would be closing the school in 1970, Saddle Lake First Nation members occupied the school in protest. Their occupation ended with an agreement that saw Blue Quills become Canada’s first residence and school controlled by First Nations people.”
- a band official would speciously claim that “… in the past, many families were afraid or unable to speak out when a child never returned home…. When all of these children went missing, there was nothing that anybody could do," deliberately ignoring that indigenous people regularly complained to school officials and others when they were dissatisfied with conditions at the schools their children attended, that they sometimes kept their children home when unhappy with some feature of school life, and that when they complained, miscreant staff members were regularly dismissed.
- the OAS claim that the mass grave it says is made up of students from the Sacred Heart Residential School was the result of “a massive outbreak of typhoid fever that caused the entire student population to perish, and that those in the mass grave are most likely those children” has no evidentiary support. The school had a student population of 45 when it opened, and it reached around 200 by the 1970s. There is no record of the entire student population perishing from typhoid or any other disease in any given year or over any short period of time. Conversely, there was a major outbreak of typhoid at the University of Alberta in 1910 and one in central Alberta in 1944 with many deaths. It is unthinkable that if every IRS student at Blue Quills died of typhoid, this had been carefully covered up.
- the comment by Eric Large that “It can be safely stated that in our community of 12,000 people, each family has had four to five children who went missing from this institution,” was never questioned by the media. If the average family size was 10 people, that computes to 1,200 families losing an average of 4.5 children which translates into 5,400 missing children without even a whisper being heard or a report being written, a ludicrous assumption if there ever was one.
- no attempt was made by band officials to search for the reserve’s so-called missing children in the public archives where the fate of most of them would easily have been found at little or no expense to the tax-paying public.
- the nameless children allegedly found in this community cemetery along with the thousands reputedly discovered all across the country using the inconclusive technique called “ground positioning radar” are being falsely and illogically conflated with the thousands of named students recorded as “missing” in the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Memorial Register.
- the families of these missing Blue Quills children have not come forward because they can’t even name these children, the last of whom died in 1945 and couldn’t themselves have been students when the original Saddle Lake school closed in 1931. The new Blue Quills IRS was then built outside the reserve near St. Paul where it operated until around 1990. Some of the deceased students could have died while enrolled there and not returned to the Saddle Lake Reserve due to inclement winter weather or because they were orphans or abandoned children.
- there is no evidence of identified family members searching for named missing or murdered children.
- the band was not even aware that there were any missing children because, if the evidence of skeletal remains in the community cemetery is true, they were buried right under their noses in that cemetery. How could such children be “missing” as opposed to forgotten?
- the GPR and other band reports detailing the results of these and other studies have never been released by the Kamloops, Blue Quills, or other bands so that their credibility can be assessed by impartial scholars and other experts including the police.
This new “discovery,” even with its recent sensational embellishments, should be seen for what it is — a story based on unverified, even unverifiable “indigenous knowings” even more explosive than the May 27, 2021 Kamloops one – but with one key difference. Everything that has been learned over the past two years is slowly but surely sinking into the consciousness of our all too often credulous populace.
The Kamloops “discovery” may well have temporarily given Canada its “date that will live in infamy.” But as history has shown repeatedly, most conspiracy theories and their proponents are eventually exposed. In due course, this one will be debunked as well.
Hymie Rubenstein is the editor of The REAL Indian Residential Schools Newsletter and a retired professor of anthropology at The University of Manitoba.
Pim Wiebel worked for over three decades in indigenous community development and refugee resettlement and is a former Indian Residential School teacher.