Monday, February 28, 2022

Post-mortem of a moral panic


Cemetery of the Kamloops Aboriginal Community (Rouillard 2022). Over time, wooden markers crumble away, and even graveyards end up abandoned and forgotten.



A year ago, ground-penetrating radar revealed 215 anomalies in an orchard behind the former Kamloops Residential Indian School. There had, in fact, been rumors of secret burials at that location, and the anomalies seemed to confirm those rumors:


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." (Lisée 2022).


The media didn’t take long to pick up the story and ignite a firestorm of indignation over the “mass grave.” In the weeks that followed, a dozen churches were burned to the ground and many more were vandalized (Wikipedia 2022a; Dzsurdzsa 2021). Although most of them were Catholic, presumably because the school had been run by a Catholic religious order, the wave of arson also included two churches that were Anglican and another that was Coptic (!). The destruction was openly supported by many Canadians, including some in leading positions. The executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, Harsha Walia, retweeted a news item about the burning of two more Catholic churches and added: “Burn it all down.” She later clarified her statement, saying it was "a call to dismantle all structures of violence, including the state, settler-colonialism, empire, the border etc." She nonetheless resigned (Smith 2021).


Prime Minister Trudeau remained silent for a week before saying that church burning was “not the way to go.” He added: “We must work together to right past wrongs” (Malone 2021). 

Is there really a mass grave?

What wrongs, exactly, were done at the Kamloops school? Last August I wrote a post on the subject and made a few points.


First, there is no “mass grave.” The burials would have taken place over a long span of time from the opening of the school in 1890 to its takeover by the federal government in 1969. The radar survey initially found 215 sites that might be graves. That figure was later lowered to 200 “potential burial sites.” Even if we accept that all 200 were, in fact, burials, that number would still be consistent with the death rate of Indigenous communities at the time. According to the 1906 annual report of the Department of Indian Affairs, "the Indian population of Canada has a mortality rate of more than double that of the whole population, and in some provinces more than three times."


Second, at least initially, the death rate was relatively low among the students at that school. If we look at the annual reports for the Kamloops residential school (which are available online for its early years), we see that the first nine years had no deaths at all. Then from 1899 to 1913 there were 12, for an annual death rate of 1.34%. The causes were pneumonia (2 deaths), tuberculosis (1), consumption (1), pulmonary disease (1), hemoptysis (1), rheumatic fever (1), meningitis (1), “took place at her home” (1), heart disease (1), measles (1), and diarrhea (1). The first five were probably all tuberculosis. The deaths began to happen three years after a doubling of enrolment, probably because of the higher risk of infection by other pupils.


A death rate of 1.34% is comparable to the death rate of young people in Indigenous communities at that time. It is also far below the estimates put forward by Jeff Rosenthal in a study for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


Last January, this question was thoroughly examined in an article written by Jacques Rouillard, a history professor at the Université de Montréal. He made several points.


·         In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that 3,200 Indigenous children had died at residential schools. That estimate, however, was based on two overlapping data sources. Because many students were counted twice, the estimate may be inflated by as much as one third.


·         The Commission estimated that the death rate at residential schools from 1921 to 1950 was twice as high as that of Canadian youth in general. That estimate is probably inflated (see previous point) but is still comparable to the death rate on reserves at the time. The cause of death was usually tuberculosis or influenza. During the 1950-1965 period, residential schools had a death rate comparable to that of Canadian youth in general. The improvement was probably due to the advent of streptomycin and other new antibiotics during the 1940s.


·         The Commission identified the names of 51 children who had died at Kamloops Residential Indian School between 1915 and 1964. Rouillard was able to find information on those deaths from records at Library and Archives Canada and from death certificates at the British Columbia Archives. Two of the deaths had been reported twice. Of the 49 children who actually died, there were records for 35 of them:


Seventeen died in hospital and eight on their own reserves as a result of illness or accidents. Four were the subject of autopsies and seven of coroners’ inquests. As for burial sites, 24 are buried in their home Indian Reserve cemetery, and four at the Kamloops Indian Reserve cemetery. For the rest of the 49 children, information is either missing or requires that the complete death certificate in the B.C. Vital Statistics Agency be consulted. This is a far cry from the unverified claim that authorities overlooked or somehow covered up their deaths, or that the parents were not informed, or the remains never returned home. Most were informed and most were returned home. (Rouillard 2022)


·         Kamloops Residential Indian School was located on the Kamloops reserve. As Rouillard notes, “is it really credible that the remains of 200 children were buried clandestinely in a mass grave, on the reserve itself, without any reaction from the band council until last summer?”


·         There is no reason to believe that the 49 children were not given a decent burial. It was common practice to mark Indigenous graves with wooden crosses, which in time would decompose and crumble away:


According to historian Jim Miller of the University of Saskatchewan, “the remains of children discovered in Marieval and Kamloops had been buried in cemeteries according to Catholic rites, under wooden crosses that quickly crumbled.” “The wooden cross was a Catholic burial marker for the poor,” confirms Brian Gettler of the University of Toronto. (Rouillard 2022)


But how could there be 200 burials when only 49 students died at the school? When the initial estimate of 215 “potential burial sites” was revised downward to 200, we were told that identification of such sites was difficult because of disturbances in the ground due to tree roots, metal, and stones (Rouillard 2022). The figure of 200 sites is thus very approximate. The real figure will remain unknown until the site is excavated and the remains examined. Why hasn’t that been done? As Jean-François Lisée notes in his comments on Rouillard’s article: “Why wasn't the site immediately designated a crime scene? Why weren't our best crime scene experts sent there?”


The inaction, in itself, says a lot.


I suspect there is an abandoned graveyard behind the school. It probably contains the remains of students who had to be buried on the school grounds because of disease and/or because the student came from another reserve and could not easily be transported home. Most of the burials probably date from the school’s early years, after which there may have been a few isolated burials—unborn babies that some of the female students had naturally or deliberately miscarried (some students were as old as sixteen). Although the Catholic Church does perform burials in such circumstances, the service is simple and done with none of the publicity that comes with a regular funeral—hence the rumors of secret burials, which through telling and retelling became grotesquely magnified.


We have no first-hand or even second-hand accounts, but there are rumors of abortions at the school:


Another survivor in the book, Eddy Jules, spoke of abortions and a furnace.


"All of us that were going to school would hear the clang, and we would say, 'Oh, that's so and so's friend, and they gave her an abortion,'" said Jules, noting the strangeness of "fire in September or October or November when it's not cold."


[…] "Some survivors talked about infants who were born to young girls at the residential schools, infants who had been fathered by priests, were taken away from them and deliberately killed — sometimes thrown into furnaces, we were told," said Sinclair. (Barrera 2021)


Please note that this is hearsay. It is less verifiable than the allegations of Satanic ritual abuse in American preschools back in the 1980s. Those allegations at least had the support of first-hand accounts … by children, of course. Preschool teachers had their lives ruined by bizarre stories that proved to be totally unfounded, including stories that featured flying witches, underground tunnels, and travel in a hot-air balloon (Wikipedia 2022b).




Barrera, J. (2021). Lost children. The threat of death was part of life at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. So why is it so hard to determine how many children died there? CBC News


Dzsurdzsa, C. (2021). Update: A map of the 68 churches that have been vandalized or burned since the residential schools announcement. True North, August 23


Frost, P. (2021). Canada’s moral panic. Evo and Proud, August 4


Lisée, Jean-François. (2022). Mysteries of Kamloops (translation). Le Devoir, February 5


Malone, K.G. (2021). Politicians, Indigenous leaders say burning churches not the way to get justice. CTV News, June 30


Rouillard, J. (2022). In Kamloops, Not One Body Has Been Found. Dorchester Review. January 11


Smith, C. (2021). B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director Harsha Walia at centre of social media firestorm. The Georgia Straight, July 5


Wikipedia. (2022a) 2021 Canadian church burnings


Wikipedia (2022b). McMartin preschool trial.


Anonymous said...

Clandestine abortions at a Catholic School in the early 1900's sounds highly, highly unlikely, to say the least. Neglect and mistreatment of unwed mothers I can believe, given some of the things that happened in Ireland around the same time, but abortions? Not buying it...

Bill said...

Hope you and your loved ones are fine. May I ask where you have been for so long? I nearly gave up looking for news here.
Please take care.

Peter Frost said...


Not in the early 1900s, but perhaps in the 1950s and 1960s. Even before abortion became fully legal, teenage girls would induce miscarriages by various means.


I'm sorry for the break in my posting. On the one hand, I was busy with two projects that took up almost all of my spare time. On the other hand, I felt helpless and depressed in the face of certain events in Canada and abroad, specifically the increasing collusion between the State, the media, and the banking system. The Canadian State is now punishing people without bothering with the niceties of formulating an accusation and putting them on trial.