Pope’s pilgrimage to Canada: why mystery surrounds the graves – Catholic Herald

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Any question raised about the mass graves involving indigenous people in Canada immediately generates the accusation of someone being an apologist for the Catholic Church and what it did, or worse, a racist and imperialist.

Pope’s pilgrimage to Canada: why mystery surrounds the graves – Catholic Herald

Any question raised about the mass graves involving indigenous people in Canada immediately generates the accusation of someone being an apologist for the Catholic Church and what it did, or worse, a racist and imperialist. To be clear, the Catholic Church did operate schools and there is no denying abuses took place. It was therefore correct that the Pope apologised profoundly for this abuse against a people harmed on their own land. 

But that cannot change the fact that mystery surrounds the 215 unmarked graves apparently discovered in 2021 near the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, a catalyst for the pilgrimage undertaken by Pope Francis. As Jane Stannus wrote in the Spectator, the anthropologist who made the discovery – Sarah Beaulieu – found 215 areas which showed soil disturbance which could be graves (or other excavations) although later revising “the number down to 200 because stones, metal content and roots indicated other possible causes.” In the late 1990s a child’s rib had apparently also been found, followed by a tooth in the 2000s.

Beaulieu, however, “admitted nothing could be concluded until excavations and forensic investigation were carried out”. Yet, Stannus wrote, “no excavations were carried out”, while “none are planned, according to a devastatingly thorough review of the event written by professor of history Jacques Rouillard for the Dorchester Review.” Rouillard argued “that there is no compelling evidence yet that the deaths of indigenous children were covered up by the authorities, or that their remains were not returned home.” In other words: “A single bone and tooth do indeed point to the possibility of a terrible crime. But they do not substantiate an alleged 200 crimes.” 

As Wilfred Reilly also argued in Spiked: “To quote Rouillard, Beaulieu’s initial report is ‘actually based on depressions and abnormalities in the soil of an apple orchard near the school – not on exhumed remains’. A skilled radar operator, Beaulieu argues that Kamloops and some other sites display ‘multiple signatures’ that to some large extent ‘present like burials’. However, these ‘signatures’ are in and of themselves basically just disturbances in the ground – which apparently might also be ‘tree roots, metal, [or] stones’.”  

Despite lack of confirmation, there was an immediate, and mainly, anti-Catholic reaction, with over sixty churches vandalised, burned and desecrated, with Canadians urged not to celebrate Canada Day. Clerics were disparaged as was anyone who dared suggest the schools had any positives. Meanwhile, as Stannus wrote, it didn’t stop at Kamloops, after “ground-penetrating radar indicated at least 34 similar soil disturbances near Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, where stories of undocumented burials abounded.” 

Yet, over the following months, excavations found nothing and the investigation ended. Meanwhile, the Cowessess First Nation said they found unmarked graves near a residential school in Saskatchewan, which “turned out to be an ordinary community cemetery from which the stone markers had, for some reason, been removed in the 1960s.” Reports also emerged about unmarked graves near another residential school in British Columbia, while failing to mention the remains were in a cemetery still in use while the original markers could have rotted away. 

According to Reilly, “Tom Flanagan of the University of Calgary” has called “the whole tale ‘the biggest fake-news story in Canadian history’ in a recent New York Post article. At the very least, it is complete nonsense to say that multiple bodies of children, or confirmed mass graves, have ever been found at this site in Canada.” Reilly wrote that he “was more than a bit surprised to discover that the now-closed Kamloops Residential School is located smack dab in the middle of both the well-known Kamloops Indian Reservation and the 100,000-person city of Kamloops in British Columbia.” 

Reilly argued: “To quote Rouillard: ‘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?’” It worth noting that there do not appear to be more than 200 children who died at the school during the modern era – in unknown circumstances – and could thus have been in the graves. In fact, there appear to have been 51 child deaths between roughly 1910 and 1964 and, of these, records exist for 71 per cent of deaths, and other records could be obtained from BC’s Vital Statistics Agency. 

According to Reilly: “As the Dorchester Review notes, residential schools were required to report the name of every student who died each year to the Canadian government. However, they did not always do so – often providing only comprehensive death (and illness) numbers. Later on, other reporters, both historically and during a 2015 ‘truth and reconciliation’ process, separately recorded each death of each ‘unnamed, unknown’ student – even if the same child had already been reported to the government as part of an imperfect but effective process. This led to a situation in which the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report ‘identified’ several thousand missing children across Canada, a figure that would represent a substantial percentage of all children ever to die at a residential school.” 

Of course, we can say confidently that abuses occurred. Moreover, as in other parts of the world, indigenous people in Canada were subject to discrimination and persecution. The Pope – coming from Argentina, a country with a history of persecution against its own indigenous people – is no doubt acutely sensitive to this. Yet, it seems not only that big questions are left unanswered about the graves but that many took it as a welcome opportunity to attack the Church, viewing the alleged crimes as part of a pattern of ‘white supremacist’ behaviour. This does not diminish abuses the Church has engaged in. But it confirms that facts must be established before conclusions are drawn. The Pope did not travel to Canada for nothing, but that does not change the fact that mystery surrounds the Canadian graves.

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