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No remains unearthed yet from Canada’s residential school grave sites

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A teddy bear sits beside a lantern outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School where flowers and cards have been left as part of a growing makeshift memorial created in response to media reports that the “remains” of 215 children have been discovered buried near the facility in Kamloops on June 5, 2021. / Cole Burston /AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jul 25, 2022 / 18:48 pm (CNA).

On May 27, 2021, the news broke that unmarked graves containing the remains of indigenous children had been discovered on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia. 

The Kamloops Indian residential school, which operated from the late 19th century to the late 1970s, was among Canada’s government-sponsored schools run by the Catholic Church to forcibly assimilate indigenous children.

More than a year later, no bodies have been discovered at the Kamloops site. It is not clear whether the graves said to have been discovered there actually exist. 

The topic of the residential schools has come back into focus on the occasion of Pope Francis’ penitential trip to Canada. In apologizing for the Catholic Church’s role in operating Canada’s government-sponsored residential school system, he regretted the “cultural destruction and forced assimilation” inflicted on the indigenous people of the country. Indigenous children were taken from their families and forbidden to speak their native languages.

As a “starting point” the pope called for “a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.”

Media frenzy distorts initial finding

At the root of the controversy is how the purported burial sites were discovered. Ground penetrating radar picked up images, but it is yet to be determined whether those images represent graves.

In hindsight, the announcement of the results of the radar testing was made with a caveat. It was seen as a “preliminary” finding, yet the media and politicians ran with the story that mass graves were found at the site of a former 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,” Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community said after the initial announcement.

“Remains of 215 children found at former Kamloops residential school: First Nation,” read a headline in the Vancouver Sun. The lead of the story read: “A B.C. First Nation has confirmed that the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School have been found on the reserve using ground-penetrating radar.”

Children’s red dresses are staked along a highway near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School where flowers and cards have been left as part of a makeshift memorial created in response to media reports that the “remains” of 215 children have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, on June 2, 2021. Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

The Associated Press’ story that week made the radar results appear definitive: “The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, have been found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school — one of the institutions that held children taken from families across the nation.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau adopted similar language in a statement he issued the day after the research findings were announced: “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart — it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you.”

In its report on what it called the “grisly discovery,” the New York Post called the suspected burial site a “mass grave.”

“A mass grave filled with the remains of 215 Indigenous children, some as young as three, has been found on the grounds of a former residential school in Canada that was known for physical, emotional and sexual abuse, reports said Friday,” the Post story began.

In a story published June 7, 2021, headlined “How Thousands of Indigenous Children Vanished in Canada,” The New York Times reported, “The remains of more than 1,000 people, mostly children, have been discovered on the grounds of three former residential schools in two Canadian provinces since May.”  

Sceptics question the evidence

Jacques Rouillard, professor emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Montreal, has questions about the validity of the evidence. The ground penetrating radar may have detected something, but not necessarily burial grounds, he suggested in an article for the Dorchester Review.

Rouillard maintained that in the case of the Kamloops residential school, ground penetrating radar can tell us little about what is actually under the ground.

“By never pointing out that it is only a matter of speculation or potentiality, and that no remains have yet been found, governments and the media are simply granting credence to what is really a thesis: the thesis of the ’disappearance’ of children from residential schools,” he wrote.

He noted that Sarah Beaulieu, the anthropologist who performed the initial radar testing, tried to rein in the media tsunami at a July 15, 2021 press conference.

“We need to pull back a little bit and say that they are ‘probable burials,’ they are ‘targets of interest,’ for sure,” Beaulieu had said, adding that the sites “have multiple signatures that present like burials,” but that “we do need to say that they are probable, until one excavates.”

“All of this is based only on soil abnormalities that could easily be caused by root movements, as the anthropologist herself cautioned,” Rouillard wrote.

People watch as a convoy of truckers and other vehicles travel in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in support of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc people in response to media reports that the “remains” of 215 children were discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, Canada, on June 5, 2021. Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

Shortly after the Kamloops story broke, a second story made headlines: ground detecting radar had discovered 751 graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

The New York Times (“Horrible History’: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada”) used the term “mass grave” to describe what was found in what became part of the Cowessess First Nation Reserve.

Indigenous leaders, however, made it clear that there were no mass graves at the Marieval site. Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme told CBC News, “This is not a mass grave site. These are unmarked graves.”

Journalist Terry Glavin pointed out in the National Post that the graves were detected because there was an existing cemetery there, a Catholic cemetery connected with the Mission of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Marieval. This, Gavin wrote, was the likely explanation for the 751 graves detected.

Future excavations in doubt

Further studies or excavations could shed light on the situation. In May, the New York Post reported that there have been no excavations at Kamloops — and that there are no announced dates for an excavation to begin. The report cited a spokesperson from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, a band located in Kamloops, as saying that nothing has been dug out from the ground so far.

The CBC, that same month, cited Rosanne Casimir, the chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, as saying that work could begin soon at the former school to exhume and identify remains.

“We are utilizing science to support each step as we move forward,” Casimir said. “We do have a technical task force that has been put together that consists of various professors as well as technical archeologists and we are continuing to work with a ground-penetrating radar specialist as well.”

The CBC reported that local communities are torn on whether to dig up unmarked graves at residential schools. While some school survivors see exhumation as a way to properly memorialize victims, others want them left undisturbed.

Kamloops school survivor and poet Garry Gottfriedson told the CBC that “All of us that were at that residential school already knew that they [bodies] were there.”

“Now, it’s sort of like saying, ‘Do you believe us?’ Exhuming those bodies and that sort of thing is one way to say, ‘Now, if those were your 215 relatives put in a mass grave like that, tell me how you would get over it.’”’

In Ontario, police and the coroner’s office received a request from indigenous police to assist in an investigation at the Mohawk Institute Residential School, where records document 54 students dying, the New York Times reported last year. 

There are bodies there, the local community says.

According to leaders of the Six Nations of the Grand River, where the school once stood, human bones were exhumed in the 1980s and then reburied without a formal investigation.

The children at these schools died for many reasons, including disease (which spread easily due to malnourishment and unsanitary conditions), accidents, and suicide. The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, Murray Sinclair, also remembered hearing survivors testify about infants being killed who were born to young girls and fathered by priests, the Washington Post reported last year.

“For many Canadians and for people around the world, these recent recoveries of our children — buried nameless, unmarked, lost and without ceremony are shocking, and unbelievable,” RoseAnne Archibald, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a national advocacy organization that works to advance the collective aspirations of First Nations individuals and communities across Canada, said in a statement last year. 

She added: “Not for us, we’ve always known.”

Kevin J. Jones, Shannon Mullen, and Carl Bunderson contributed to this story.


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