Mysteries of Kamloops

By Jean-François Lisée 

The following column was published today in Le Devoir (Montréal), Feb. 05, 2022:

Eight months after the discovery of traces of 215 graves near the Kamloops residential school for Aboriginals, how many bodies have been identified? None. Exhumed? None. Have human bones even been confirmed? No. Has a second opinion been obtained? No. There is something very mysterious about Kamloops. And if it is true that members of the Oblates deliberately buried 215 Aboriginal children without notifying their parents or the authorities and then managed to cover it up for decades, this is one of the most serious crimes in the history of this country.

Why wasn't the site immediately designated a crime scene? Why weren't our best crime scene experts sent there? The suspected cemetery is located on a reserve, and I understand the justified reluctance of Aboriginal people to see the RCMP as biased. Why not a joint squad with excellent Aboriginal police officers, including co-leading the investigation?

Ironically, it seems as if the response to this case was simultaneously maximalist - referring to it as a "mass grave" as the media have done, which is not the case, flying flags at half-mast for five months, publicly humiliating the Prime Minister during his visit to Kamloops, demanding an immediate apology from the Pope - and minimalist, failing to take the only concrete step to prove the truth of the matter: a search.

After much debate, the members of the Tk'emlups te Secwépemc Nation decided to proceed with the burials, but on a timeline that is not yet known. The RCMP say they have opened an investigation, in consultation with the Nation, but nothing is known. On the ground, nothing is moving.

The state of the evidence Anthropologist Sarah Beaulieu has surveyed the land with ground-penetrating radar that detects anomalies in the soil that may have been caused by the digging of graves. The technique cannot perceive the presence of corpses or bones. A second survey made her revise the number of these disturbances downwards, from 215 to 200. But other researchers cannot examine his results, because the Nation opposes it.

Then there are the first-hand witnesses. The CBC program The Fifth Estate last month presented the most comprehensive testimony ever gathered on the subject. It found no one who had seen the burials, but several accounts are chilling.

One former resident, Audrey Baptiste, recalls that when she was 10 years old, she saw the bodies of four young boys hanging in a barn. She recognized one of her classmates. For asking questions of the religious teachers, she says she was beaten on her arms and hands with a "strappado." The chief of a neighbouring nation, Michael LeBourdais, says his uncle, a boarder in the 1950s, told him that boys were forced to fight and the winner, or loser, was then forced to go dig holes in the orchard where the alleged graves were found. His uncle seemed convinced that they were graves. "Dig a hole, someone disappears. Dig another hole, someone disappears," he told her. Chief Harvey McLeod, from another nearby nation, also a former student of the school, says a lady confessed to him, sobbing, "I was one of the people who buried them." He did not take her contact information. But a public call for testimony could be useful to find these participants.

There is circumstantial evidence. Of ex-students advised not to go into the orchard because "there were holes." A persistent rumor about the existence of these burials. Not to mention direct testimony of sexual assault. And there are whispers that the furnace in the basement was used to burn fetuses or newborns, but without proof. Students "disappeared" and then found

Finally, there are the names of the missing students. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 3200 Aboriginal students across Canada who never returned from residential schools. Of these, it identified 51 from the Kamloops residential school. It is natural to think that these 51 students must be among the 200 mentioned.

Quebec historian Jacques Rouillard, who had already worked on the archives of Alberta residential schools, cross-referenced information from Library and Archives Canada files with death certificates held in British Columbia's vital records. A source that the Commission does not appear to have consulted. In an article published in The Dorchester Review, Rouillard reported that he had located 37 of the 51 "missing" students: of these, he identified 17 who died in hospital, 8 who died as a result of accidents on their reserve or near the school, and 2 who were listed twice by the Commission (bringing the total to 49). Of these, 24 are buried in their reserve cemetery and 4 in the official Kamloops reserve cemetery. He writes: "This is a far cry from the unverified claims that authorities did not register the deaths, that relatives were not informed or that the remains were never returned to their families." Former judge Brian Giesbrecht independently came to the same conclusion. He publishes the list of names with the information found.

The doubts raised about the veracity of the claims and the delay in conducting the search have led some to declare the Kamloops case a massive hoax. I do not share this view. However, there is an urgent need to treat the allegations, and the evidence, seriously and methodically. Everything hinges on the existence, or not, of those 200 bodies. A quick and independent search is essential. Truth and reconciliation depend on it.

Read the original (in French) at Le Devoir here.