Doubts are growing about the scale of historic abuse at Canada’s notorious residential schools for indigenous children after a dig at one of the country’s most high-profile sites uncovered no bodies.
The country has set aside billions of dollars in compensation and declared a ‘cultural genocide’ in the treatment of indigenous children who were taken away from their families and placed at the schools for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Teams using ground-penetrating radar claim to have found mass graves in the last two years containing the remains of more than 1,000 children who were buried in secret.
But no bodies have since been recovered, and researchers have now confirmed that none have been found during a four-week dig in the basement of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, on the site of the former Pine Creek Residential School, where the remains of more than 60 children were thought to be hidden.
‘People believe things that are not true or improbable and they continue to believe it even when no evidence turns up,’ said Tom Flanagan, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary.
215 pairs of children’s shoes are seen on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery as a memorial to the 215 children whose remains were reportedly found at the site of Kamloops School in British Columbia
Children at the residential schools were banned from speaking their own language or practicing any of their customs
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told indigenous people that ‘the hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada’s responsibility to bear’
‘People seem to double down on their conviction that something happened.’
The country’s Truth and Reconciliation commission concluded in 2015 that between 3,000 and 6,000 children died in school, mainly from disease.
Former students told the commission they were forcefully taken from their families, forbidden from speaking their own languages and often physically or sexually abused in 130 schools which taught more than 150,000 pupils.
Three quarters of the schools were run by the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis met survivors in 2021 and apologized for Church’s involvement.
And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted ‘Canada’s responsibility’ in 2021 after a survey indicated 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
His government set aside $40 billion for compensation to survivors and First Nations child welfare in that year’s budget.
‘This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations,’ said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations in Saskatchewan.
‘We will not stop until we find all the bodies,’ he added.
The discovery took place just weeks after another 215 children were reportedly found buried on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, and sent Canada into a wave of revulsion.
The vandalism took place after a group of protesters gathered at the Manitoba legislature on Canada Day – an annual celebration on July 1 that marks the country’s confederation
The defaced statue after being toppled during a rally, following the reported discovery of the remains of hundreds of children at former indigenous residential schools
One protester places a boot on Queen Victoria’s toppled statue in Winnipeg
Red hand prints were daubed on the statue of Capt James Cook who was branded a ‘colonizer’
Statues of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II and explorer Captain James Cook were toppled and vandalized during protests across the country on its national day, with some left daubed in red paint and symbolically strangled with the Mohawk flag.
But no bodies were recovered from the sites, and Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation admitted the figures may be exaggerated.
Residential schools in Canada: A shocking history of abuse
More than 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and placed in residential schools from 1863 to 1998.
The system was created by Christian churches and the Canadian government in the 19th century in an attempt to ‘assimilate’ and convert indigenous youngsters into Canadian society.
There, they were banned from speaking their own languages or any of their traditional practices.
In 2008, the Canadian Federal Government formally apologized for the practice, and launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The investigation found at least 4100 students died while attending the schools, many from abuse or neglect.
Infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, malnourishment and accidents were also common causes of death at the schools.
The commission into ill treatment of indigenous children brought out horror stories of sexual and physical abuse and neglect.
Many of those who survived the schools suffered chronic illnesses and disabilities.
Released in 2015, the commission’s report admitted the policy was ‘cultural genocide’.
It established The Missing Children Project to document the thousands of children who died while attending the schools.
The project had found 4100 before the latest discovery at Kamloops.
‘This is not a mass grave site, these are unmarked graves,’ he told a press conference at the time.
‘In 1960, there may have been marks on these graves, the Catholic Church representatives removed these headstones and today they are unmarked graves
‘We cannot affirm that they are all children, there are oral stories that there are adults in this gravesite, some from our local towns and they could have been buried here as well.
‘We are going to put names on these unmarked graves.’
James McCrae, Manitoba’s former attorney general, resigned from a government panel in May after his skepticism infuriated some indigenous groups.
‘The evidence does not support the overall gruesome narrative put forward around the world for several years, a narrative for which verifiable evidence has been scarce, or non-existent,’ he wrote.
Chief Derek Nepinak of Minegoziibe Anishinabe revealed the results of the four-week dig at Pine Creek in a social media video on Friday.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has a record of 21 child deaths at the school which operated between 1890 and 1969.
Nepinak insisted the discovery of no bodies takes ‘nothing away from the difficult truths experienced by our families who attended the residential school in Pine Creek’.
‘The results of our excavation under the church should not be deemed as conclusive of other ongoing searches and efforts to identify reflections from other community processes including other initiatives,’ he added.
The issue has polarized Canadian society with inquiry chief Kimberley Murray accusing skeptics of desecrating graves by organizing digs of their own at suspected sites.
This week she called on the country’s justice minister David Lametti to criminalize ‘denialism’
‘I think we need to send a message that it is not okay,’ Ms Murray told The Globe and Mail.
‘It’s also necessary to make it very clear that people cannot incite hate against survivors.’
Professor Flanagan compared the issue to the ‘moral panic’ over repressed memories and supposed Satanic cults, and University of Montreal history professor Jacques Rouillard said the actual scale of the horror is still not known.
‘I don’t like to use the word hoax because it’s too strong but there are also too many falsehoods circulating about this issue with no evidence,’ he added.
‘This has all been very dark for Canada. We need more excavations so we can know the truth.
‘Too much was said and decided upon before there was any proof.’