This article will assess the current political climate that has arisen since the purported discoveries of mass burials of child remains at various residential schools since late May and June 2021.
These discoveries, though preliminary, have been called ‘mass graves’ by many in the media, and ‘unmarked graves’ by more sober minds. I will argue that neither characterisation is accurate. I will then tie these discoveries, as well as the sensational narratives crafted about them, to a spate of church attacks that have vandalized or outright burned down churches across Canada. In doing so, I will argue that these cases are instances of religious hatred and that politician and media responses to them are hypocritical and inadequate.
Finally, I will argue that the attacks are not limited to churches and have extended outward to other signifiers of European heritage. In doing so, I wish to demonstrate that the acts of sanitizing the public square of controversial figures in Canadian history is not about justice. It is about vengeance.
Discovery of ‘Mass Graves’
On May 27, 2021, Chief Rosanne Casimir said that she had confirmed the preliminary findings of the remains of 215 children who were students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. With the help of a ‘ground penetrating radar specialist’, which was spoken about but never documented, was finally brought to light.
According to Chief Casimir,
We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths… Some were as young as three years old… This work was undertaken by [the] Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Language and Culture Department with ceremonial Knowledge Keepers who ensured that the work was conducted respectfully in light of the serious nature of the investigation with cultural protocols being upheld.
Now, how Chief Casimir claims to ‘know’ any of this is questionable. Her assertions of knowledge could very-well be exceeding her epistemic grasp, here. After all, ground-penetrating radar isn’t like some fish-finder that provides a more finely-grained image: pin-pointing the locations of your intended target. In fact, such data from ground penetrating radar surveys are seldom obvious or self-evident and require methodical interpretations and finally unearthing of the objects in question. Additionally, readings from such radar can be influenced by myriad natural and man-made sources, as well as human error.
Chief Casimir had stated that her community was aided by a ‘ground penetrating radar specialist’, but never provided the name of the individual nor of the company that individual worked for. Additionally, she never offered up the interpretations of the radar scans that led them to believe that they had found 215 children. Also, Chief Casimir stated that some children ‘as young as three’ were found. Well, ground penetrating radar scans cannot tell you the age of the remains – that can only be determined after exhumation. Moreover, children three-years-old and younger were not admitted to residential schools. Perhaps these issues will be cleared up, but so far, they are waiting for confirmation.
Further, Niigaan James Sinclair, an Anishinaabe writer, associate professor at the University of Manitoba, and son of Calvin Murray Sinclair, who was the chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from 2009 to 2015, has opined:
It’s a story that I think Canadians are surprised about because they are not prepared for what has been the truth of this country, which is that this is the kind of abuses that were perpetrated against Indigenous people — my people — for over a century and a half in these places.
Again, given the questions above, I am unsure to what ‘truth’ Niigaan is referring. Perhaps it is some ‘greater truth’ that is not affected by the truth or falsehood of the individual claims made in its service.
That said, and with questions aside, what we are being told is a tragic story: the deaths of children are always tragic, and the context of their deaths in residential schools only exacerbates that.
Despite the good intentions may have motivated the residential school project of assimilation of indigenous peoples into a burgeoning Canadian society, the tales of abuse at the hands of staff and students, the poor conditions of housing and food due to persistent lack of Federal funding, as well as child separation from family and community are harsh and ought not be minimized.
Having extended that olive branch, I think that what we have been fed by media and motivated actors like Niigaan Sinclair, are likely instances of exaggerated evils.
For instance, the labelling of the Kamloops residential school – and subsequent ‘discoveries’ – as ‘mass graves’ by some in the media is utterly false and misleading. Though Chief Casimir, to her credit, has cautioned against using that term.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) defines ‘mass grave’ as a ‘burial site containing remains of two or more victims of extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and/or is a potential repository of evidence of mass killings of civilians and prisoners of wars during of an armed conflict.’
Like ‘genocide’, however, there is not unanimous agreement on this definition. The disagreements can lie in nitpickings over the number of individual remains in the burial site, but they are also motivated by the activist desire to craft weapons for the subaltern to use against their enemies in culture wars instead of finding truthful descriptions of events.
Nonetheless, the common definition of a mass grave involves the burial of numerous bodies resulting from mass violence, and its use in the residential school context is either hysterical or meant to gin up hysterical visions of dead children being unceremoniously tossed into a hole in the ground.
In her initial press release, on May 27th, 2021, Chief Casimir referenced a report entitled ‘Where are the Children buried?’, which was completed by Dr. Scott Hamilton in 2015. The report was only made public following the press release.
According to Dr. Hamilton, records reveal ‘wild fluctuations from year to year’ which may reflect periodic epidemics at the schools, as well as poor record keeping and/or sporadic survival of records.
Archival records, as well as the TRC’s own statistical research, illustrated that the death rate of children (ages 5-14) at residential schools was about 19 times greater than the general population of the same age cohort. These higher death rates persisted until 1945 and thereafter plummeted to levels consistent with the general population.
In recent interviews, Dr. Hamilton has expressed concern over the press’ use of the term ‘mass grave’, arguing that is misses the point of the situation being presented. Instead, Hamilton argues that what may have been found is a graveyard that accrued the corpses of children – and likely others – for over a century because of truly appalling conditions which led to high rates of devastating disease (like tuberculosis, influenza, and pneumonia) ending in death. Children also died from abuses, and others died whilst running away. However, the main cause of death was disease.
Children who died were buried in simple graveyards often located near the schools, however, sometimes, due to sickness, the staff would be incapable of burying the children on their school grounds, themselves. In these cases, and to ensure proper burial of the deceased, the school would sometimes contract out the burial to a neighbouring community’s undertaker to be buried at their graveyard.
Along with disease, another persistent issue was a lack of Federal funding which precluded sending the bodies home to their families or conducting proper burials.
According to Dr. Hamilton,
Indian Affairs would only pay for a child’s burial under unusual circumstances, and if it paid, it expected the costs to be kept as low as possible. In this the department conformed to the general practice of the period in the treatment of those who died in institutions. It was not uncommon for hospitals to have cemeteries into which indigent patients were buried, while workhouses for the poor also had cemeteries. Many Canadians ended up in unmarked paupers’ graves.
The graves of the residential school children, and the cemeteries in which they lie, were simple and common; with wooden caskets and wooden crosses for markings which have disintegrated over time because of weather, lack of care, and being long forgotten. Dr. Hamilton also mentions how some residential school staff were worried about run away cattle trampling their cemeteries. All in all, these graves that have been purportedly discovered are not mass graves, and the use of the terminology is wrong and misleading – likely deliberately so given the lack of correction by news media. The graves may not have been initially unmarked since, as stated, their markings have likely been erased by weather and time. Also, most children were not killed, but, sadly, perished due to disease and poor living conditions caused by inadequate housing and funding.
Finally, Dr. Hamilton stated that he found no evidence that school officials intended to hide the graves. In fact, according to the documentation,
Ordinarily the body will be returned to the reserve for burial only when transportation, embalming costs and all other expenses are borne by next of kin. Transportation may be authorized, however, in cases where the cost of burial on the reserve is sufficiently low to make transportation economically advantageous.
Given that the reluctance of the Federal government to supply funds for such treatment and transport, it is unsurprising that many children would not have been returned home.
All of these point to a long tragic story whose actual details are not nearly as sensational as headlines and activists would have the public believe.
So, when assessing the facts and comparing them to the claims in the media, I think what we have are claims of exaggerated evils. Now, to say ‘exaggerated evil’ still implies the existence of ‘evil’. The abuse and neglect of children is evil, inhumane separation of children from their families is evil, and the involuntary assimilation of cultures is evil. And I think these can all be stated whilst still assessing the facts and acknowledging the context, motivations, and struggles of the parties involved. Residential schools were a part of a civilising effort that aimed to enfranchise the indigenous peoples of Canada so they could participate and survive in a world that was changing whether they liked it or not. Such a project was aligned with the civilising missions of Western colonial powers that were viewed as being inexorably guided by God and History. Concerns over ‘cultural genocide’ are beyond the scope of this article, and given that the definition of ‘genocide’, itself, is contested, I imagine determinations of cultural genocide will be contested, too.
Instances of Religious Hate
Since the discovery of these ‘unmarked graves’, over a dozen churches have been vandalised and numerous others have been set ablaze across Canada. Ten churches in Alberta were vandalised on Canada Day, alone.
Condemnation of these acts has been tepid at best, with the repetitive chorus being ‘we understand the anger. But this isn’t the way to move forward’.
Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said ‘I personally wouldn’t have participated in that. Mind you, it has been a very triggering time over the past few weeks.’
Prime Minister Trudeau stated, ‘It’s real and it is fully understandable given the shameful history we are all become more aware of. I can’t help but think that burning down churches is actually depriving people who are in need of grieving and healing and mourning from places where they can grieve and reflect and look for support.’
A telling response came from a former residential school student who said, ‘[w]hoever is doing this, you’re going to wake up a very ugly, evil spirit in this country’.
I would like to ask: how are these arsons and acts of vandalism not being condemned as examples of crimes motivated by religious hatred? These acts are clearly being perpetrated against a well-known religious group in Canada – namely the Catholic Church, but Christianity, in general – a group, in fact, which has been incessantly demonized in the press in recent weeks.
The Criminal Code of Canada says a ‘hate crime is one in which hate is the motive and can involve intimidation, harassment, physical force or threat of physical force against a person, a group or a property.’ The victims and/or their property are targeted for who they are, not because of anything they have done.
Well, given that no one in the targeted communities actually did anything in the residential schools, these attacks on churches obviously fit the bill. However, perhaps the perpetrators and their apologists would argue that the ‘genocide’ is still ongoing and that the Catholic Church, as well as individual Christians, who are not sufficiently upset by the findings are complicit in it. After all, ‘just because you didn’t actually do anything in residential schools doesn’t mean that you have nothing to do with it.’ The trap gets sprung and guilt is imposed – no evidence needed.
One can easily point to instances of double-standards at play, and so I encourage you, dear reader, to think of your own examples.
Now, I’m no fan of hate crime laws. But I’m also not a fan of inconsistent application of law. If hate-motivated crimes exist in this country, and if a perpetrator can be motivated by religious hatred, then surely these attacks on churches count as such crimes. The cowardice of our ‘leaders’ causing them not apply equal standards in quite evident.
Attempts at European Erasure
The acts of vandalism and arson are clearly motivated by anti-Christian hate, and Christianity is a proxy for European. How so? Because the attacks are not limited to churches but extended outward to signifiers of European heritage.
As is to be expected, statues and monuments of prominent figures in European Canadian history were vandalised on Canada Day. There were also calls to ‘cancel’ Canada Day – and some municipalities did just that.
A statue of Queen Victoria at the Manitoba Legislature was toppled by protestors, as was a statue of Queen Elizabeth II.
Activists in Victoria, British Columbia also knocked down a statue of Captain James Cook and tossed it in the city’s harbour.
Sir John A. MacDonald’s gravesite in Kingston, Ontario was vandalised. His statue at Kingston Park has been previously removed on June 18th, 2021.
Names of buildings, neighbourhoods, and roads are being petitioned for removal and replacement, and the list goes on.
One person who has been making the rounds in the news media is Niigaan Sinclair. For Niigaan, there hasn’t been a statue of a European Canadian that he hasn’t wanted torn down. He is a man who is fighting for his people, and I respect that, though I don’t respect his duplicity.
When asked about the toppling of the statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II Niigaan responded, ‘[l]et’s get some scope here. A statue being re-altered or edited or vandalized, whatever you want to call it, is nowhere near the kind of scope [of violence] that Indigenous peoples continue to experience every day… [W]e saw a peaceful indicator of change in our community. And I think that’s a cause for celebration’.
Well, that is one way someone can frame what’s going on here. But I think there is a more appropriate framing – one that does not rely on a ‘altered’, ‘edited’ or ‘vandalized’ post-modern version of history.
So, let’s get some scope here: what we are seeing are belligerent mobs engaging in vandalism and property destruction of elements of European heritage in this country in a bid to engage in an undemocratic and hostile take-over of the public square. These belligerents are also backed by a sympathetic consent-generating apparatus made up of academia, news media, and some politicians.
Prime Minister Trudeau, for instance, stated:
Even as I was speaking with people who chose to wear red and white [on Canada Day] instead of orange, they were reflecting on how their fellow citizens are hurting, how we need to respect and understand that not everyone felt like celebrating yesterday. Celebrating was the last thing on the minds of many many people in this country for whom we need to do better.
One thing that ‘we’ can do better is developing confidence in ourselves and our history and standing up for both.
We are simultaneously told that we need to acknowledge our ‘true’ history whilst also respecting calls for representations of that history to be torn down and erased from the public square because they serve as reminders of past oppression.
Such attitudes are hinted at in the contemporary monikers of ‘settler Canadian’ or ‘coloniser’ – which attempt to reach back to the past and imbue today’s European Canadians with the stain of generations long past.
We are told that we should be aware of the trauma that gets passed from generation to generation, however, we are also told that ‘we’ need to learn the ‘uncomfortable truths’ about our history, and to learn ‘what it really is’. Indeed, so why, then, should the statues come down? If ‘we’ are to learn of our complicated history, then having memorials to it better serves that purpose than not.
The history of the residential schools is fraught with horror but declaring mea culpa over and over without accompanying action only intensifies tension between groups by amplifying certain negative aspects of the past whilst also engendering a permanent state of grievance.
That is the final olive branch.
A less gentle response also presents itself: why acquiesce to the offence that some people feel towards statues, names, or monuments anyway? I think we should reject this acquiesce wholeheartedly.
National identity and its symbols should not be left up to the dictates and whims of the capital, the government, let alone the mob.
National identity is retained by old and inherited sentiments of belong and tradition and it is cultivated through the consideration and practice of those who share in it. It is not bought, imported, or signed into existence on a sheet of paper. It is not universal or borderless; there particularities and there are sides. It is also personal, rooted and deeply normative. Challenges to it from the ‘outside’ must be seen as challenges to all these things – especially if they are cloaked in the language of social justice and equity.These people who wish to tear down monuments and the like are not working towards some collective emancipation that will be shared by all. Instead, they are severing people from their past in a way that remedies how they view their own past was torn from their ancestors. It is not about justice. It is about vengeance.
Every piece of art, every legacy of exploration, history, militarism, and religion will be deemed as enforcing white supremacy. As such, to live in such a society and see these elements of worthy of remembrance and not trauma is an example of white privilege.
What exactly does this entail? I take it to mean that the history, society, culture, and benefits that we, descendants of Europe have accrued from our ancestors is illegitimate. I see no reason to accept this.
It is not an argument in good faith, but rather is meant to manipulate empathy and good will to self-destructive ends.