Paul Tuns, Review:

Grave Error: How the Media Misled Us (And the Truth About Residential Schools) edited by C.P. Champion and Tom Flanagan with foreword by Conrad Black (True North and Dorchester Books, $21.99 343 pages)

In May 2021, the news broke that the remains of 221 missing children were discovered in an unmarked, mass grave in an apple orchard at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. that had close three decades earlier. The story garnering massive national and international attention. The New York Times wrote about it. The UN vowed to investigate. Red China condemned Canada for human rights abuses. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered Canadian flags be flown at half-mast. September 21 was declared the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Politicians promised money to native groups and Catholic leaders apologized over and over again. The only problem with the story is that it was not true.

As C.P. Champion and Tom Flanagan say in their introduction to a vital collection of essays on the mass grave scandal, Grave Error: How the Media Misled Us (And the Truth About Residential Schools), “all the major elements of the story are either false or highly exaggerated.” Every element.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) found irregular soil anomalies and the anthropologist who made the finding called for more forensic investigation. No bodies were discovered and alternative explanations almost certainly describe something other than unmarked mass graves, including past digging activity in the area that would result in GPR finding soil that was disturbed for other purposes. Furthermore, the area in question may have been used as a cemetery and rather than being the locale of unmarked mass graves, was the site of individual graves marked by now decomposed or missing wooden crosses.

Notably, local native leaders have been hesitant to conduct further forensic investigation under the guise of not upsetting the remains of the dead. More likely, this reticence is based on fact that the Indian Residential School (IRS) mass grave story is more useful to them than the risk of not finding anything. Being a potential victim is more sympathetic and lucrative — especially when everyone is convinced it is true – than undermining the story with actual findings or, more likely, not finding anything that would confirm the story.

Champion and Flanagan have collected 18 previously published articles on the mass grave story that systemically undermine the hysteria of three years ago with cold, hard facts or examine the way in which the story was manipulated to promote hatred of Christian (specifically Catholic) churches in Canada. The essays focus on three main topics: “the weakness of the factual claims about unmarked graves and missing children, the irresponsible treatment of these subjects in the legacy media, and the wild exaggeration of judgements about the residential schools.”

The first chapter, “In Kamloops, Not One Body Has Been Found,” by Jacques Rouillard, is the most important, although much of the material is duplicated in other chapters – such is the nature of reprinting material from different online and print sources, written by numerous authors for often very different audiences. It methodically lays out the evidence (and lack of it) to show readers that not a single body has been discovered in this so-called mass grave.

Rouillard notes that GPR “does not directly identify human remains” but rather “reveal(s) soil disruptions.” Sarah Beaulieu, the anthropologist, did not claim to find the remains of children but “probable burials” and “targets of interest.” Notably, the Tk’emplups te seewepemc Band Council refused to release her full report to the public. Trudeau trumpeted the findings in a tweet before seeing the report.

Rouillard rehearses the aftermath of these findings: the Band Council refused to cooperate with either the B.C. Coroner or RCMP about the findings despite the allegation of crimes being committed and covered up; the RCMP’s abdication of responsibility to the Band Council as it wiped its hands of the matter; the federal government promising money to investigate the sites of mass graves in Kamloops and elsewhere and compensation to the living “victims” of IRSs. As Rouillard observes, the RCMP “abdication is even more pronounced given that these are cases in which a party or parties stand to gain financially and politically from announced findings.”

He says that it is unsurprising that GPR found soil anomalies considering that the area had been used for agriculture and horticulture for decades and that a sewage draining system was created in the 1920s and upgraded in the 1930s. GPR, he argues, should have been followed up by “post-survey inspection of the ground surface, supplemental investigation with a metal detector or soil probe, or test exaction.” None of this has occurred. Rouillard says that most other locations where the media has repeated the mass grave story, have likewise not had follow-up investigations; those that have, discovered no human remains.

Rouillard also examines the claims of “missing children” – most notably made in the seriously flawed Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (2015) — and thoroughly rebuts the notion that thousands of students who were in the care of IRSs are unaccounted for. He says that the TRC’s claims were the result of “lack of information and the use of a biassed methodology” and “unfounded and illogical inferences,” which he, Rouillard, picks apart. He shows rather than the accepting the innuendo that they were killed, there is evidence that most were victims of tuberculosis and influenza, which afflicted native and non-native children alike. Far from burying children in mass, unmarked graves, IRSs kept “detailed records” of illnesses and deaths, tragic realities in large institutions in the early 20th century. The narrative of large numbers of missing children is partly the result of the TRC ignoring church IRS archives and claiming there was insufficient data to know what precisely occurred with these children. In many cases, cross-referencing data from various sources do show what happened to many of these children. He also calls out the “obvious problems with relying on oral testimonies” which are at best mistaken and at worst fabricated (“a tale grows with the telling” says Rouillard) due to the possibilities of financial compensation.

Finally, Rouillard explains the statutory requirements of IRSs and concludes (echoing archivist Eloi DeGrace) that “extensive oversight made it nearly impossible for a child to go missing.” But what does the missing children narrative say about native parents? Rouillard notes that retired Manitoba Provincial Court Judge Brian Giesbrecht wrote, “is it even remotely possible that thousands of parents of any race or ethnic group would simply accept the fact that their children had gone to live in a boarding school, and never returned?”

In their introduction, Champion and Flanagan state that Canada “is already  very far down the path not just of accepting, but of legally entrenching, a narrative for which no serious evidence has been proffered” – namely “that both Catholic and Protestant missionaries tortured and killed thousands of Indian children, then hid their bodies in secret burials, often pressing other Indian children into service to dig the graves, and that generations of religious authorities, police officials, civil servants, and elected politicians have prevented the truth from coming out.” If anything should be dismissed as a conspiracy, it is the hysteria over missing children and mass graves. Rather than dismissing this narrative as entirely unsubstantiated, there are calls from the NDP and an openness from the Trudeau government to make IRS “denialism” a crime. If such a law were passed, honest, good-faith efforts to relate actual facts like those throughout Grave Error would become a crime. Find and read this book while you still can.