“We all heard of horrible lies created by some individuals in order to receive as much money as they could.”
— former Dene Chief Cece Hodgson-McCauley, 2018
We Had a "Knowing”
By Tom Flanagan and Brian Giesbrecht
Special to The Dorchester Review
ON MAY 27 and July 15, 2021, press releases from Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation (Kamloops Indian band) in British Columbia announced that the “remains of 215 children,” “some as young as three years old,” had been found, and that this had come about because “we had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify”, and that the search had been based on “Knowledge Keepers’ oral histories.”
The Kamloops press releases were quickly followed by similar announcements at Marieval, Saskatchewan, then Cranbrook, and later Williams Lake, both in British Columbia. Since then, a number of articles and videos have suggested that these claims are a massive fraud or giant hoax. The truth is even more disturbing. They are not simply a fraud or hoax. Many of the people accusing residentials schools, and Catholic clergy in particular, of murdering thousands of indigenous children in horrible ways and secretly disposing of their bodies — with the help of six-year-old conscripts — actually believe their bizarre claims. What is going on?
THE PHIL FONTAINE INTERVIEW
RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS took centre stage after Barbara Frum’s 1990 CBC television interview with Phil Fontaine in which Fontaine, then Manitoba Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, unexpectedly made allegations of widespread sexual abuse at the residential school he had attended as a child: “In my grade three class ... if there were 20 boys, every single one of them ... would have experienced what I experienced. They would have experienced some aspect of sexual abuse.” Although Fontaine did not elaborate, the scale of what he described suggested widespread student-on-student abuse.
Since that interview, preposterous stories have taken hold and become deeply-rooted in First Nations communities — stories of murders and clandestine burials on a large scale, of babies thrown into furnaces, of children imprisoned in underground chambers and cisterns, hanged in barns, and shocked in electric chairs, with the result that $321 million dollars of federal government funding has been committed to searching for unmarked graves all over the country, and helping surivors heal from their trauma.
There is no documentary evidence to support these stories. There is no record, for example, of a single student being murdered at a residential school —never mind thousands — in the 113-year history of residential schools. Nor — and this is key — are there any records of indigenous parents claiming that their children went to residential schools “never to be seen again,” as claimed by Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson.
This has not stopped indigenous leaders from proclaiming these conspiracy theories as fact, nor has it stopped the media and general public from believing them. In 2021 there were vigils across the country for the 215 children supposedly buried in secret by Catholic priests and brothers in the apple orchard at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, despite the fact that the RCMP and the BC Coroner declined to investigate, suggesting they did not give credence to the claims. To make matters worse, the original story of 215 burials in the apple orchard at Kamloops was amplified in a recent CBC Fifth Estate program, The Reckoning: Secrets Unearthed by Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, to include stories of sexual abuse, children who mysteriously disappeared, the lifeless bodies of four boys hanging in a barn, abortions, and babies thrown into the school furnace.
"Politicians and journalists hold their tongues and offer no pushback against stories that are clearly fictional"
At a press conference on January 25 at Williams Lake in the Cariboo area of British Columbia, Chief Willie Sellars ventured further into the realm of the fantastic. Not only did he allege that the priests and nuns at St Joseph’s Indian Residential School had committed almost every heinous act that could be imagined — murder, torture, gang rape, lashing and starvation of children, and the usual “priest throws baby into incinerator” trope — but according to Chief Sellars there was an effort at all levels to hide the evidence of these horrendous crimes: “[There is] clear evidence that religious entities, the federal government and the RCMP have knowingly participated in the destruction of records, and the cover-up of criminal allegations.” Although not a single police report, newspaper account, or any other historical record supports these allegations of murder and secret burials, distinguished indigenous leaders, including TRC Commissioners Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild, and Marie Wilson, as well as former Kamloops chief Manny Jules and Dr. Ron Ignace, appear to believe tales of six-year-olds secretly burying bodies late at night. Meanwhile politicians and journalists hold their tongues, and offer no pushback against stories that are clearly fictional.
In the light of this widespread public acceptance, similar claims of murdered and secretly buried indigenous children can be expected from other First Nations flush with cash enabling them to pursue these frantic searches for thousands of “missing children” they honestly believe were killed in hideous ways and secretly buried at residential schools all across the country.
EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY
IT IS WORTH noting that prior to the interview with Phil Fontaine in 1990, one would have had to look very hard to find anything even resembling these claims. It was only after the Fontaine interview that stories of residential school atrocities gained ground, even though they were contradicted by the explicit evidence of some contemporary indigenous leaders.
Former Dene Chief Cece Hodgson-McCauley, whose weekly newspaper column, Northern Notes, ran for thirty years, was the most outspoken. In a column in 2018, she wrote: “We all heard of horrible lies created by some individuals in order to receive as much money as they could.” In her final column she said, “I always tell you the truth.”
In his autobiography, Breaking Trail, Senator Len Marchand, the first status Indian to be appointed to the federal cabinet, recounted his experience at Kamloops Indian Residential School, which he attended by his own choice for a year. Marchand praised the quality of teaching there and said he knew of no abuse: “The reader might be expecting me to tell a few horror stories about physical and sexual abuse at the residential school. But I know of no incidences at KIRS.”
Chief Clarence Jules, a respected three-term chief of the Kamloops band, also attended Kamloops Indian Residential School. In Our Chiefs And Elders, published in 1992, he complained that he had been strapped for speaking his own language at the school, but thought it was “probably the best system we had around at that time.” He said nothing about murder and mayhem, nothing about secret burials or any of the other fantastic claims now being made.
However his son, Manny Jules, who attended KIRS as a day student from 1959 to 1967, and was briefly chief of staff to Phil Fontaine, when asked in a June 1, 2021, interview on CBC’s The Current whether he had heard stories of secretly buried children, said: “Everyone did. I heard them, you know, from my parents and I heard them from other residential school survivors. You know, you just know that this is the situation right across the country.”
This is hard to believe since, prior to Chief Casimir’s press release a few days earlier, Manny Jules had never publicly mentioned secret burials, or reported them to the RCMP during his own tenure as chief. Nor did he ever search for the burials he claimed he knew about from his parents, despite the fact that he participated in an archaeological excavation program on the Kamloops Reserve led by Dr. George Nicholas of Simon Fraser University. In a 2013 report, Dr. Nicholas wrote: “There was, however, a degree of First Nations participation in some of these projects. In fact, former Kamloops Chief Manny Jules met his wife, Linda, while they were both working on an archaeological project.”
Many other successful indigenous people attended KIRS, including John Jules, another of Chief Clarence Jules’ sons, who became an archaeologist and was a “traditional knowledge keeper.” Another successful student was Joe Stanley Michel, the first graduate of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, who returned to teach at the school from 1952 to 1967 and resided with his wife and children in a teacherage on the school grounds.
Not one of the many distinguished indigenous individuals who spent their formative years at a residential school said anything publicly about students who disappeared, or were murdered, or hung in a barn, or thrown into furnaces, nor did they report such allegations to the RCMP. So where did all of these stories about residential school atrocities come from?
THE CONSPIRACY THEORIES OF KEVIN ANNETT
IT SEEMS THE concern about residential schools generated by the Fontaine interview was manipulated and spurred forward by the conspiracy theories of Kevin Annett, a defrocked United Church minister and self-styled “gut-level anarchist” with an ambition to “change the world fundamentally” and “make a revolution.”
Annett has made it his life’s work, after his dismissal by the United Church due to his very obvious problems, to disseminate gruesome allegations about residential schools, particularly the Kamloops one. On May 30th, 2021, only a few days after Chief Casimir’s press release, Annett claimed on one of his websites that the school was “an especially notorious Special Treatment center designed to inflict particularly cruel and severe punishment, experimentation and torture on native children.” He claimed his “investigators” had interviewed thirty-nine former KIRS students who reported tales of torture, rape, imprisonment, forced sterilization, deadly government experiments, ritual Satanic cult killings, child trafficking, secret burials and general mayhem.
Since the mid-1990s, Annett has made a career of promulgating these stories in a steady stream of books, interviews, websites, videos, public events, and even sham human rights tribunals. In 2017, in Fallen: The Story of the Vancouver Four, he publicized the delusions of sad, alcoholic indigenous men he befriended on Vancouver’s skid row, including William Combes, who died in 2011. Combes was reputedly the author of two stories widely circulated by Annett: the claim of burials in the apple orchard at the former Kamloops Residential School, and the claim that Queen Elizabeth kidnapped ten children from the school while on a picnic at Deadman’s Creek in 1964. This bizarre tale has circulated on the internet for a decade, even though the Queen did not visit Western Canada in 1964.
In 2006 Annett filmed the documentary Unrepentant, which shows grainy footage of the apple orchard at the Kamloops school, with a voice-over by William Combes describing a burial he witnessed there. This implies that the Kamloops Band gave Annett permission to shoot video footage in the apple orchard on the Kamloops reserve in 2006, thus linking Annett and the Kamloops Band to the tale of secret burials in the apple orchard fifteen years prior to Chief Casimir’s announcement in a press release on May 27, 2021, of the discovery of “the remains of 215 children,” “some as young as three years old.” Why did the Kamloops Band not report these alleged burials to the RCMP in 2006? Or later, in 2008, when the alleged burials were again brought to the notice of the Kamloops Band in an article in Kamloops This Week?
“It has been established that the soil disturbances found by GPR in Marieval and Cranbrook are in known community cemeteries.”
After filming Unrepentant, Annett attempted to bring it to the attention of First Nations, the federal government, Canadian churches and the United Nations via demonstrations, fake tribunals, and a promotional tour which included screenings in Ottawa, Victoria, and the Mohawk First Nation reserve at Brantford.
In September 2010, four years after the release of Unrepentant with its footage of the apple orchard on the Kamloops reserve, Annett published Hidden No Longer containing an appendix listing “Mass Graves at former Indian Residential Schools and Hospitals across Canada,” including one in the orchard at Kamloops, and another in an orchard at the former Mohawk Institute at Brantford, now the Woodland Cultural Centre:
Brantford : Mohawk Institute, Anglican church (1850-1969), building intact. Series of graves in orchard behind school building, under rows of trees.
Kamloops : Catholic school (1890-1978). Buildings intact. Mass grave south of school, adjacent to and amidst orchard. Numerous burials witnessed there.
In April 2011, encouraged by Annett’s claim in Hidden No Longer that he knew exactly where bodies were buried at the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, the Mohawk Nation of Ouse/Grand River invited Annett to lead a search for unmarked graves. According to Annett’s account in Murder By Decree, interviews with former students, ground-penetrating radar searches, and excavation took place that fall. But when Annett tried to pass off animal bones as those of dismembered four-year old children at an Occupy Toronto protest in November 2011, Annett was exposed as a fraud, and publicly denounced by the Mohawk First Nation.
What of the alleged burials in the orchard at the Mohawk Institute? Archaeological excavation took place in the summer of 2017, and according to a story in the Two Row Times on June 2, 2021, Annett’s claim of burials there, as well as the claims of former students that babies were buried there, were definitively disproved:
One of the reoccurring community stories involving the Mohawk Institute are the accounts of former students who claimed there were babies buried beneath the apple trees in the school’s orchard. As part of the Woodland Cultural Centre’s revitalization and Mohawk Institute Memorial Park plans — those apple trees were removed and an archeological investigation was done of the area which, thankfully, did not uncover any human remains.
Oddly, Two Row Times brushed off the fact that allegations of secret burials by former students had been definitively disproved with the offhand comment that “thankfully” no human remains were found.
Despite these setbacks, the Mohawk Nation continues to believe stories about secretly buried children, and plans further searches for which ample funding is available; the Ontario provincial government has allocated a total of $20 million to finance searches for unmarked graves at residential schools throughout the province.
Kevin Annett continues to propagate his increasingly bizarre allegations, including his claims involving Satanic cults. In Billy Remembers, Frances Widdowson compares Annett’s claims to the emotional hysteria surrounding supposed Satanic sexual abuse recounted in the book Michelle Remembers and the “daycare abuse cases” of the 1980s and early 1990s, which resulted in “over 12,000 unsubstantiated accusations.”
Annett linked residential schools to Satanic rituals immediately after the Kamloops announcement on May 27, 2021. Moreover he claimed in a recent video that the Vatican plans to have him assassinated on a date which is significant to a Satanic sect:
Annett’s decades-long crusade and the steadily increasing stream of stories of atrocities by former students of residential schools have wrought considerable damage to Christianity in Canada. Last summer more than a dozen churches were destroyed by arson, while many others were vandalized. These crimes were widely attributed by the media and Canadian government officials to anger at the discovery of thousands of graves of residential school children. No perpetrators have been identified or brought to justice.
This anti-Christian sentiment has been largely directed against the Catholic Church and the Catholic religious orders which operated and staffed many residential schools. Although Catholic-run institutions comprised only 43% of all Indian residential schools in Canada, Catholic residential schools occupy most of the media coverage of these alleged atrocities. It is almost always a priest who is said to have thrown babies into a furnace, not a Protestant minister or pastor, and it seems always to be a priest or brother who orders six-year-olds to secretly bury the children he has murdered.
Sometimes these claims involving alleged Catholic perpetrators defy the known facts of the case. Secret Path, Gord Downie’s book about the death in 1966 of Chanie Wenjack, is now widely taught to Canadian children. In it, the villains are a priest and nuns, despite the fact that Chanie Wenjack was from a Protestant family and attended public school in Kenora while boarding at the Cecilia Jeffery Residence, a Presbyterian hostel that had earlier been a residential school. In fact, there is no evidence that Wenjack ever met a priest or a nun in his entire life. Why this emphasis on Catholic villains? It is hard to know, but this anti-Catholic rhetoric is troubling.
A GOVERNMENT-DRIVEN NARRATIVE IMPERILS CANADA’S FUTURE
It is also troubling that money and active encouragement from federal and provincial governments are driving this unrealistic narrative. As noted earlier, the federal government has given First Nations communities $321 million dollars to search for “missing children” who simply aren’t there. But government spending has spiralled even more seriously out of control. The federal government recently announced that $40 billion dollars will be spent on the indigenous child welfare issue. As Professor Tom Flanagan explains, that profligate spending was only possible given the current frenzy surrounding “unmarked graves.”
There is no obvious solution to a problem that results in a steady stream of press releases and media coverage as indigenous communities use federal money to search for bodies that have never been shown to exist. The attitude of the current Liberal government is only making a bad problem worse. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller’s recent announcement that he believes all of these claims without reservation — no matter how preposterous — is truly alarming. More alarming still is his denunciation of anyone who questions the claims. He has even hinted at making such questioning illegal hate speech.
“The federal government has given First Nations communities $321 million dollars to search for ‘missing children’ who simply aren’t there.”
Whatever the current government does or does not do, the strong belief within the indigenous community that Canada has acted murderously towards them in the past and is continuing to commit genocide against them and their culture in the present will poison relations for years to come, and make it very unlikely that indigenous young people will have happy and successful lives. How can they if they believe that they are living in a racist country that has systematically killed their ancestors, and despises them? Even when the current government departs, it will be very difficult for any new government to change this deeply entrenched belief. In fact, when a new regime takes charge and reduces the remarkable flow of money to indigenous issues and communities that has occurred since 2015, the country can only expect bad things to happen from people who are convinced that they are the permanent victims of an evil system.
None of this is to suggest that the people who reside in First Nations communities do not have many legitimate grievances, or that many people were not harmed in residential schools. The concerns are real, the harm is real, and both must be addressed. However, believing stories that are not true does none of that.
WHAT TO DO GOING FORWARD
ONE THING HAS become clear. Where excavation has taken place after GPR searches, nothing has been found — no human remains, no graves. The list of former residential schools and Indian hospitals where excavation has yielded nothing and stories of burials have been proved untrue includes the former Mohawk Institute at Brantford, the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, and the Kuper Island Indian Residential School in British Columbia. It thus appears that stories told by former students of their experiences at residential schools are not “knowings” or the “oral histories of Knowledge Keepers,” as Chief Casimir would have it. They are merely stories told by human beings whose memories, like the memories of all other human beings, are fallible and frail.
What is needed is concrete evidence that the burials at Kamloops and Williams Lake actually do exist, something which can only be accomplished through excavation. In the CBC Fifth Estate program mentioned earlier, former chief Manny Jules stated that the spokespersons for the families in the Kamloops Band have now all agreed that excavation should take place. It is gratifying to hear that the Kamloops Band has taken this necessary step to resolve the problem. Since the Kamloops site has been more than once declared a crime scene by Chief Rosanne Casimir and by AFN Chief RoseAnne Archibald, to preserve trust on all sides this excavation should be done under RCMP supervision by expert archaeologists with no connection to the Kamloops Band.
 Marchand, Len and Matt Hughes, Breaking Trail, Prince George, Caitlin Press Inc., n.d., pp. 15-16.
 Dr George Nicholas, Professor of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University, developed and directed SFU’s Indigenous Archeology Program on the Kamloops Indian Reserve from 199 to 2005. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbPLXTJwVMY.
 Nicholas, George, Archaeology as a Transformative Practice in Secwepemc Territory, Archaeology Department, Simon Fraser University, 2013 (draft).
 Reid, Michael D., ‘Focus on school abuse fallout’, Victoria Times Colonist, Friday, June 8, 2007.
 Catapano, Andrea Lucille, The Rising of the Ongwehònwe: Sovereignty, Identity, and Representation on the Six Nations Reserve, Ph.D thesis, Stony Book University, December 2007, p. 214 at https://www.proquest.com/openview/b68ea75490251d7df56ff3af45f9e8d2/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750.
 Clifton, Rodney A. and Mark DeWolf, From Truth Comes Reconciliation (Winnipeg: Frontier Centre For Public Policy, 2021), p. 34.
 Tom Flanagan, “The Road to Reparations,” Fraser Institute, forthcoming.
 The burials at Marieval and Cranbrook have not been excavated, but it has been established that the soil disturbances found by GPR in both places are in known community cemeteries.