Alleged mass graves raise uncomfortable questions for Canadians
There is little question that of the few blemishes to Canada's human rights record, the sad atrocity that was Residential Schooling is the most disfiguring.
The atrocities that took place there have long been recognized by Canadian law, although many surviving victims still wait for even the most basic recompense.
Recent events, however, have shed some additional light on those victims who didn't survive, some of whom were never accounted for.
In an announcement largely ignored by the mainstream media this past week, the Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared, an organization dedicated to uncovering the truth regarding reportedly tens of thousands of Aboriginal children who disappeared from the schools. According to former United Church minister Kevin Annett, the number of unaccounted for ranges from 40,000-50,000.
The statement released by the organization alleges that many of those children can be accounted for in mass graves at 28 residential school sites.
While the allegations alone are unsettling enough, there seems to be some work yet undone on these claims that may have made an announcement more than a little premature.
To start off with, no physical evidence has been found to corroborate the claims.
However, it's well known that a significant number of children at the schools died tuburculosis -- at one particular school, up to 63% of the children are reported to have died (although none of the sources available seem to actually identify the school). All those dead children have to have gone somewhere, and their families have the right to know.
There are, however, some intracies in the story that stretch either the credulity of the claims, or the what remains of the credulity of, in particular, the Churches involved in Residential Schooling.
Consider, for example, Kevin Annett, a former Reverend ordained by the United Church of Canada, was defrocked by the United Church in 1996. He has become one of the leading figures demanding further investigation of Residential Schools. It's not hard to imagine that he could be conducting his crusade as a measure of seeking revenge against the Church.
However, he was defrocked to "inadequate pastoral skills", a charge vague enough to suggest that he may have been defrocked for asking too many questions about the Port Alberni Residential School.
The story would also seem to be contradicted by the stories told by individuals like Sylvester Greene, who, while working for a United Church-run residential school, was paid to dig a grave for a deceased five-year-old boy.
Greene, who worked at a St Albert-area residential school, was hired to dig only one grave, for only one child. According to Greene, a friend and cousin of his told him that they also buried one child apiece.
The St. Albert school -- now the Poundmaker's Lodge, an addiction treatment center -- is among the sites named by the oddly-named International Human Rights Tribunal into Genocide in Canada (oddly named because it doesn't seem to be an international panel at all, but rather an investigatory arm of the The Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared).
It would seem strange that the United Church would bother to dig individual graves if they were maintaining mass graves during the duration of the residential schooling.
One other issue undermining the credulity of the mass grave claims are some of the other claims made about Residential Schools in the past: namely, that Residential Schooling was a genocide. This particular claim confuses genocide, which -- whether they will admit this or not -- requires large-scale killing (although sterilization could actually do just as well), with ethnic cleansing, which only requires the destruction or removal of a particular ethnic culture.
(The rejection of Residential Schooling as an example ethnic cleansing in favour of the more spectacular claims of genocide and Holocaust actually makes little sense when one considers that ethnic cleansing is no less reprehensible than outright genocide.)
Likewise, it's not hard to believe that the Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared could be making mass grave claims where unmarked grave claims would be more appropriate. (And likewise, unmarked graves are bad enough on their own.)
It will certainly remain difficult for the media to take the claims of mass graves seriously until physical evidence of them can be produced.
But frankly, the allegations alone are disturbing enough, and warrant investigation. This is a matter that should, nonetheless, be taken seriously by both the Federal Government and the RCMP.
Even if the only role served by investigating these allegations ends up being dispelling them, it will have been well worth the time, effort and funds expended to dispel this shadow of doubt upon the Canadian psyche.
But by the same token, if the claims of mass graves do turn out to be true, it will only demand that Canadians ask more uncomfortable questions of themselves, and of their history. But such questions would be necessary, and the result of an investigation that is equally necessary.