A Skeptical Analysis of the Reports of “Unmarked Graves” on Residential Schools Grounds
Abstract: Unmarked graves, including children’s graves, are commonplace and exist in virtually every town and city in Canada and around the world. This reflects the reality that in the history of the Earth the dead outnumber the living 14 to 1; that most graves over time are gradually not maintained, and that mortality rates among children were extremely high historically.
Despite sensationalized media coverage, there are reasons for skepticism concerning recent claims made of the “discovery” of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools. Many experts are aware of discrepancies in these stories, but given a media climate that seems increasingly like mass hysteria, are reluctant to comment publicly. Some of these inconsistencies and contradictions are so obvious that anyone who reads this analysis will surely concede that aspects of the “mass grave” stories are highly misleading.
On May 27, 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwe´pemc published an article on their website stating that the remains of 215 children were “found” through the use of “a ground penetrating radar specialist.” The name of the company or specialist who performed the survey work was not specified, and few other details were included in the brief report, other than to stress that it was only “preliminary findings.”
In spite of the preliminary and vague nature of the report, it immediately sparked lurid and sensationalized headlines worldwide, which went beyond anything contained in the press release.
The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, The Toronto Star, and numerous other media outlets all ran stories claiming that a “mass grave” had been discovered, a term never used in the report. The Times ran the headline “‘Horrible History’: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada,” while the Toronto Star printed the headline “Mass impact from discovery of mass grave.”
As archaeologists who have worked with ground-penetrating radar, we knew immediately that the media’s claims went far beyond the evidence, as ground-penetrating radar is quite limited in what it can reveal beneath the earth. But one need not be a specialist to suspect that some aspects of the story were far-fetched. A little common sense and basic knowledge would have alerted anyone to the fact that the “mass grave” claim was highly improbable. A mass grave implies a single catastrophic event, in which all the dead were killed at the same time, and then unceremoniously dumped into a single pit and covered up. Understandably, if such a thing did happen at Kamloops it would indeed be shocking, though fortunately, it is now known beyond doubt that no such thing happened.
Ground-penetrating radar cannot determine the existence of a mass grave; although it can help determine the probable existence of individual graves by locating the suspected outlines of shafts and (depending on the exact technology used) possible coffin remains. But it cannot in any case determine the age, ethnicity, or cause of death, or how old the gravesites are. It was therefore obvious to us that the media headlines about a “mass grave” were false, a fact that was soon confirmed by the Tk?emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir.
In her first public appearance since the May 27 press release which sparked global headlines, at a June 4 press conference Chief Rosanne Casimir stated: “this is not a mass grave. These are preliminary findings. We will be sharing the written report in the middle of the month.” No other new details were provided, but the confirmation that there was no mass grave should have prompted a media reckoning other false and inflammatory coverage, but did nothing of sort. To date, the New York Times and other media, including the Toronto Star, have not issued corrections to their initial false reporting.
It is doubtful that the story would have sparked headlines worldwide if it had been reportedly more accurately, as the shift from a “mass grave” to individual unmarked graves completely alters the story. A mass grave full of children conjures up images of the worse kind of horror, possibly involving murder. Unmarked graves, in contrast, indicate deaths that occurred gradually over a longer period of time, and which likely did once have burial markers (wooden crosses), but which over time were not maintained. Indeed, the Tk?emlúps te Secwépemc press release made plain that the burial site had actually already been known, but since it had not been maintained it was half-forgotten until the recent survey (a fact also ignored in most of the media coverage). The actual details then are not nearly as sensational as the false media headlines made it out to be, headlines which sparked even more extreme social media commentary, and the burning to the ground of at least five churches so far.
Moreover, there are still major unanswered questions about the claims, some of which at this time cannot be reconciled with the known facts. Tk?emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir claimed in her initial May 27 release that some of the 215 remains included children as “young as three years old.” Leaving aside that children that young did not attend residential schools, the only means to determine the age of human remains is to excavate them and examine the bones. But this, according to all publicly released information, has not been done. So how then can Casimir claim to know that the remains of a three-year old are under the ground? Certainly ground-penetrating radar cannot determine such details. Curiously, the Tk?emlúps te Secwépemc have declined to respond to media inquires about such details, or even to release the name of the private company that did the radar survey. Given the school’s long history (it was founded in 1890 and remained in operation until at least the late 1960s), it is entirely possible that the cemetery uncovered was used at an earlier date as a community cemetery, and that some of the graves may not be students.
But in any case, there is no real mystery over what the cause of death was in the majority of cases at residential schools. It is well-established that influenza and tuberculosis were responsible for the majority of deaths. Tuberculosis predates European settlement in the Western Hemisphere, and has caused periodic outbreaks that killed large numbers of people (especially children). Also during the residential school era were four deadly influenza pandemics that reached Canada from overseas, mostly notably Spanish flu in 1918–1919. Besides this, there were also deadly influenza pandemics in Canada in 1890, 1957, and 1968. Each of these pandemics killed thousands of people in Canada. The Spanish flu alone killed an estimated 50,000 Canadians, most of them young people. It was these influenza pandemics and tuberculosis outbreaks that caused the vast majority of deaths at residential schools, which medical treatments of the time were mostly powerless to prevent.
There is also the unacknowledged irony of much of the media trying to collectively blame all Canadians today for past pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks (even though most Canadians weren’t even alive at the time), while insisting that no one should be blamed for covid-19 (even if it originated from a lab leak). This obvious contradiction further highlights that much of the commentary on residential school graves are motivated by something other than a commitment to uncovering the facts. Even more telling is the complete absence of any acknowledgement that the infant mortality rate in Canada throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century was extremely high for children of all backgrounds. Every graveyard of that era contains a large percentage of children’s graves. Indeed, CBC’s Canada: A People’s History (Volume II) states that in early 20th century, “Montreal…had the highest infant mortality rate in North America, a rate that was on par with Calcutta’s.” To this day thousands of unmarked children’s graves are buried in and around Montreal.
Although the errors the media made concerning the initial report about the Kamloops site should have led to a more measured response in subsequent reporting, instead it seems to have only sparked even more outlandish claims about the alleged “discovery” of other graves elsewhere. Shortly after the Kamloops story, on June 24 in Saskatchewan the Cowessess First Nation held a press conference to claim that they had “found” 751 unmarked graves near the site of a former residential school, prompting similar lurid and patently false media stories across Canada and beyond.
This time, the survey took place on the grounds of an actual cemetery, one that has been in use for well over a century, and which is still maintained as a cemetery today. In other words, this supposedly shocking discovery was actually nothing of the sort — the survey literally found graves in a graveyard, most of which are likely adult graves with no connection to any residential school. Not only was this burial site already known to exist, it has been in use since the 1800s. It also happened to be the only Roman Catholic cemetery in the area, meaning for generations local people from all over were buried there.
Even more bizarrely, there had already been news stories as early as 2019 about the planned survey work on the site, and at that time, the local people interviewed had made plain that the primary purpose was to locate old graves of relatives, some of them elderly. It must be presumed then that of the 751 possible graves identified by the survey, the majority are not children’s graves or even related to the residential school, and at least a few might not even be Indigenous.
But irresponsible media reporting has repeatedly implied that all 751 graves were both unknown and that they are children’s graves. Moreover, the removal of some of the headstones or crosses from the graveyard over the years was, according to local reports, due to erosion and lack of maintenance, not some sort of sinister plan. The site has also been under the control of the Cowessess First Nation since 1987, without any effort to re-mark the old graves, despite it being known that such graves had existed.
All subsequent residential school grave stories have followed a similar pattern: a sensational press conference announcing the “discovery” of graves through a ground-penetrating radar survey (technology which cannot distinguish between a child or adult grave) at sites that were already known cemeteries (and therefore contain plenty of adult graves). Any town or city in Canada, however, could do the exact same thing with ground-penetrating radar at unmarked cemetery sites.
Some demographic data might help journalists and activists contextualize just how commonplace unmarked graves actually are. Carl Haub, a senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, estimated that as of 2015 approximately 108.2 billion people had been born in the history of the world, of which (as of 2015) 7.4 billion were alive. This means there are estimated 100.8 billion people who have died in Earth’s history, or put another way, the dead outnumber the living by more than 14 to 1. In Canada’s context, given our current population of over 38 million, even a conservative estimate would be that there are well over 50 million dead people buried somewhere in Canada (a number that takes into consideration cremation).
Obviously, the vast majority don’t have maintained gravesites. As the relatives of the deceased age, inevitably gravesites are in many cases no longer maintained, and are eventually forgotten. Virtually every town and city (in) Canada has graveyards that are no longer maintained and now forgotten. This is easily confirmed simply by looking at old maps of municipalities, which denote graveyards in many locations that today are no longer cemeteries but just overgrown fields (or even shopping malls and parking lots). To our personal knowledge, in recent years unmarked graves were accidentally uncovered adjacent to Roman Catholic churches in both Hamilton and Guelph by construction crews, some of which were not even particularly old, but still had managed to become unmarked. It is therefore quite obvious that finding 215 or 751 graves in a graveyard (and those numbers are just preliminary estimates) is hardly shocking. Indeed, as recently as 2020 CBC News reported that there an estimated 20,000 unmarked graves buried underneath downtown Halifax alone! Other cities, such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, have even larger numbers of unmarked graves, including children’s graves, which do not have any connection to residential schools. If we are really serious about surveying old graveyards, the final tally of bodies to be found in Canada will run into the tens of millions, including huge numbers of children’s remains (the vast majority of which will not be Indigenous). Indeed, every graveyard of that era contains a large percentage of children’s graves.
Of course, many of the people commentating the loudest on historic graveyards aren’t actually interested in unearthing the past. They’re interested in pitting people against each other in the present.
*The authors are two archaeologists with experience working with ground-penetrating radar, including at burial grounds.