When it comes to the coverage of graves identified near residential schools in three First Nations communities, the legacy media in Canada has done a tremendous disservice to all Canadians – especially First Nations.
They have created a moral panic, and continue to fan the flames of racial division.
This panic came to a breaking point over the weekend, when prominent statues were knocked over and at least 25 churches in Western Canada were either vandalized or completely burnt down.
To make matters worse, several prominent commentators, including politicians, journalists, professors, lawyers and activists, excused the behaviour of the mob, explained away and justified these riots, and in some cases, even cheered them on.
“Burn it all down,” said the head of the BC Civil Liberties Association, once the country’s strongest voice for protecting the rule of law and civil liberties.
Likewise, the Chair of the Newfoundland Canadian Bar Association Branch said “Burn it all down”
Or how about this, from a radio host in St. John New Brunswick:
“Burn the churches down. Arrest any former staff that were actually there and any current staff that won’t provide documentation. Sell everything they own in Canada and give it to survivors. Dismantle it completely.”
Not to be outdone, NDP MP Niki Ashton cheered on the mob who toppled statues at the Manitoba legislature but calling it “decolonization” and saying there is “no pride in genocide.”
Finally, Justin Trudeau’s top advisor and best friend Gerald Butts said that burning churches isn’t cool, but it “may be understandable.”
How did we get here as a country?
Here are the six ways the legacy media in Canada got this story wrong.
1. Unverified Reports
It is standard practice in journalism to clarify whether or not an allegation has been proven, in court or otherwise. But when the Tk’emlups band issued a press release stating that they had used ground penetrating radar to locate 215 unmarked graves, the media accepted the story without question or any verification.
The band said a report was forthcoming in mid-June – but no report has been released to date. No evidence of any sort has been put forth for public consideration. We don’t know who carried out the research, whether it was a company or a university, or how the technology was used. At this point, we have a few claims, and nothing else.
This may be a minor point, but it’s an important distinction nonetheless.
2. What exactly was “discovered”?
There has been incredible confusion over what exactly was discovered, and media outlets have used tremendous liberty in describing what the bands have claimed.
JJ McCullough has made this point on Twitter, showing all the various ways the media have described what was discovered.
The first nation band leaders say they used ground penetrating radar.
To be clear: nothing was “uncovered.” No “bodies” were found. There was no excavation, nothing was unearthed, nothing was removed, no identities were confirmed.
So anything you may have read saying these graves belong to children, including some specific claims about the ages of these children, is speculation at this point.
Let me refer back to a National Post story that explains what ground penetrating radar actually does. They interviewed a professor of Anthropology who is also the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology. She said this of ground penetrating radar:
“It doesn’t actually see the bodies. It’s not like an X-ray.”
“What it actually does is it looks for the shaft. When a grave is dug, there is a grave shaft dug and the body is placed in the grave, sometimes in a coffin, as in the Christian burial context. What the ground-penetrating radar can see is where that pit itself was dug, because the soil actually changes when you dig a grave. And occasionally, if it is a coffin, the radar can pick up the coffin sometimes as well.”
We’re talking about pretty rudimentary technology here, and a relatively imprecise process. The numbers are more or less a rough estimate.
So why have media reports been so bold in asserting these numbers as facts?
3. We don’t know whose graves were discovered
The Tk’emlups band claimed the graves belonged to children at the school. So when the second two bands (Cowessess and Lower Kootaney) came forth with their own claims, many in the media jumped to the conclusion that these too were the graves of children from residential schools.
But that wasn’t the claim made by the bands. In fact, in both Cowessess and Lower Kootaney, the graves are believed to be in community cemeteries, belonging to both First Nations and the broader Canadian community.
Tucked away at the very end of a report in the Globe and Mail on the findings at the Cowessess reserve in Saskatchewan, it said this:
“It appears that not all of the graves contain children’s bodies, Lerat (who is one of the band leaders) said. He said the area was also used as a burial site by the rural municipality.
“We did have a family of non-Indigenous people show up today and notified us that some of those unmarked graves had their families in them – their loved ones,” Lerat said.”
So what we have here is an abandoned community cemetery, where people of different backgrounds were buried.
That’s quite a leap from the original storyline that these graves belong to children who had died at a residential school.
4. NOT mass graves
These are not mass graves. Several media outlets, both in Canada and international outlets like the BBC, Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post have recklessly and erroneously labeled these findings as mass graves.
This is incredibly irresponsible.
All three chiefs themselves have explicitly stated these are not mass graves.
Why is this important?
Mass graves are a hallmark of genocide. They conjure images of pure evil, the kind of evil that characterized collectivist governments in the 20th century.
Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
These were truly evil leaders who used mass graves to cover their atrocities and crimes against humanity. These leaders carried out mass murder, and the mass graves went hand in hand.
The use of the term mass graves is wrong, and it is reckless. It conflates Canada’s policy of forced assimilation through mandatory universal education, with Nazi death camps.
Let me be clear. Canada’s policy was wrong. It was misguided and in too many cases, those who were responsible for caring for children in this country let them down, and let all of us down.
But that does not put Canada’s residential schools on any level of equivalence with Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.
It’s good to see that the Washington Post made a correction on their story. Others should follow.
5. Cause of death
Many children who died at these schools died of natural causes. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee report in 2015, the number one cause of death was Tuberculosis.
You can argue that these children didn’t receive proper health care, or that some of their immune systems could’t handle living in close proximity to other children.
But negligence resulting in accidental death is quite different from murder, which is what many in politics and the media have suggested.
Since this news came out, there has been a near universal assumption in the media that these graves are evidence of Canada’s Holocaust, as if the children had been deliberately killed.
Genocide requires intent. It requires a concerted and systematic effort to conduct mass murder and eliminate an entire race of people.
Canada’s residential schools, however misguided, had the intent of educating children, assimilating them into the broader Canadian population, and ultimately lifting them out of poverty.
The policy was wrong, clearly. It was flawed and much harm resulted.
But there are a few orders of magnitude that separate the misguided intent of Catholic priests, nuns and Canadian government officials versus those of Nazi firing squads and gas chambers.
6. It’s possible these weren’t even unmarked graves.
Wooden graves, which were and are still the norm in First Nations communities in Western Canada, erode and disintegrate over time. It’s possible these were once marked graves.
This is the claim being made by the former chief in the Lower Kootenay region (the third band to have announced the finding of graves.)
This is from a Global News story (my emphasis added):
The detection of human remains in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in B.C. was not an unexpected discovery, according to the area’s former chief.
On Wednesday, it was confirmed that ground-penetrating radar found 182 unmarked graves in a cemetery at the site of the former Kootenay Residential School at St. Eugene Mission just outside Cranbrook, B.C.
The remains were found when remedial work was being performed in the area to replace the fence at the cemetery last year.
Sophie Pierre, former chief of the St Mary’s Indian Band and a survivor of the school itself, told Global News that while the news of the unmarked graves had a painful impact on her and surrounding communities, they had always known the graves were there.
“There’s no discovery, we knew it was there, it’s a graveyard,” Pierre said. “The fact there are graves inside a graveyard shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”
According to Pierre, wooden crosses that originally marked the gravesites had been burned or deteriorated over the years. Using a wooden marker at a gravesite remains a practice that continues to this day in many Indigenous communities across Canada.
So when we’re talking about so-called unmarked graves, at least in the context of the Lower Kootenay Band, what we are more likely talking about is abandoned graves at an existing cemetery.
Abandoned graves where people of different backgrounds — not just children from residential schools — were buried.
What an amazing leap to go from an uncared for community cemetery to mass graves, mass murder and genocide.
Mark Twain once said to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Well for journalists, they might say never let the facts get in the way of a good narrative.