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In 2021 there were reports of mass graves in Canada. For instance, CNN analysis quotes Indigenous peoples

that tens of thousands of their children were forcibly removed from their families for decades and sent to what some described as more like "concentration camps" than boarding schools. More than 750 unmarked graves were discovered at one such school.

and writes:

School to honour the 215 children whose remains were discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, on June 4, 2021.

Today (2022) The New York Post is disputing the previous claims.

‘Biggest fake news story in Canada’: Kamloops mass grave debunked by academics

“Not one body has been found,”

  • Is there evidence of mass graves near boarding schools or in Canada?
  • If so, is there evidence of that buried are children (of indigenous origin)?
  • If so, is there evidence that victims are due to murder or other deliberate action? (Apart from natural causes, such as disease outbreaks.)
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    Sorry, since they will never dig up the site this is an "ongoing issue" that we are apparently not allowed to question. Other questions about this story are still closed or unanswered, so this is probably a duplicate.
    – pipe
    Jun 29 at 6:49
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    @Avery "The elders said so, thus it can not be questioned" would of course never be taken seriously anywhere else, so why are you so adamant it should be taken for granted here?
    – pipe
    Jun 29 at 12:24
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    @pipe: The other question was not closed because it's an ongoing issue, but for a lack of clarity. Probably your reputation is too low to see it, but the full text of the Closing note on top of the question is this: "Closed. This question needs to be more focused. It is not currently accepting answers. Update the question so it focuses on one problem only. This will help others answer the question." Note that this is not a conspiracy. We are allowed to question. But like any other question, it needs to fit the relatively restrictive format of questions that are on-topic on skeptics.SE.
    – Schmuddi
    Jun 29 at 12:41
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    Isn't a mass grave a grave of a bunch of people who died at the same time and place in the same incident? I don't think that a graveyard full of bodies is a mass grave. Shouldn't the allegations be that there were too many deaths at the schools over years and decades? Jun 29 at 17:32
  • 6
    @Avery the "privileging of oral history" should be inherently upsetting, particularly on a web site about skepticism. Jun 29 at 21:24

4 Answers 4

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There are indeed unmarked graves at residential schools in Canada. Whether these include mass burials or not is currently under investigation. The New York Post is incorrect in claiming that "academics" have "debunked" the Kamloops mass grave.


750 unmarked graves

The CNN article reports that

More than 750 unmarked graves were discovered at one such school.

This refers to a communal graveyard on the grounds of Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan which allegedly had headstones removed by the Catholic Church. This was not immediately determined to be a mass grave; it is currently unknown. In October 2021, the community was able to match 300 of the unmarked graves apparently to indigenous members of the local Catholic church. In January 2022, Canada agreed to release Marieval Residential School records which will show when children died at the school and whether they were buried without headstones.

215 unmarked graves?

The NYPost article declared

‘Biggest fake news story in Canada’: Kamloops mass grave debunked by academics

This refers to a different case, Kamloops Indian Residential School. Against the claim of 215 burials there, a retired economics professor named Frances Widdowson has cited the aggressive counterclaim of

“not a single known victim, not a single identified murderer, not a single grieving parent looking for a child who went missing while attending a residential school, and not a single body.”

Widdowson's article shows that a small number of graduates of the school claim they remember forced abortions or murders, but that none of their claims have been matched to any missing children. She also discusses the vagueness of the claim of unmarked graves.

This is a reasonable objection to the news media's initial report of a "mass grave," which The Guardian later revised to "unmarked graves" (as pointed out by AmiralPatate -- thanks). Widdowson shows that the revised claim of "unmarked graves" still lacks key evidence such as names or dates.

However, she goes beyond simply raising concerns about the reliability of individual testimony, in claiming that she has uncovered a "moral panic" similar to "the satanic abuse panic" which renders the claims of mass graves entirely baseless and fraudulent. I looked into the sources Widdowson cites and found that she mistreats her sources. Specifically, she approvingly cites

three indigenous staff members [who] are featured in the 1962 CBC documentary The Eyes of Children (now considered, without explanation, to be a “propaganda film” by The Fifth Estate) ... The Eyes of Children offers a stark contrast to the macabre tales being told: footage of children enthusiastically crowding around one of the priests, playing sports, and being taught dancing by a nun. Three indigenous teachers, Michel, Paul, and Caron, can be observed giving classes and providing training in a machine shop.

Widdowson is aware of the 2000 book Behind Closed Doors describing abuse at this school, and mentions it no fewer than five times in her essay, but she doesn't note that it explains the context of this propaganda film. Namely, the school fiercely censored all discussion of abuse there, even in children's letters home. I will quote from a summary of the book:

One way for students to resist was through writing letters to their relatives. One student, tried to write letters home to his parents to tell them the Oblates were not treating him well. After the Oblates discovered that the student had criticized them he was no longer allowed to write letters home. Another student remembered that the teachers would write a letter on the black board for the student to copy, and they were not allowed to add anything else or they would not send it. She remembered it well, “it said “Dear Mother and Father, How are you? I am fine” and then they left a blank for the name.

Of course any film made at the time for the purpose of promoting the school would show smiling children gathering happily around priests. Behind Closed Doors also explains that only boys were allowed in the machine shop, while girls were made to sew the boys' clothes and change the bed linens of the priests (and, incidentally, used sexually segregated textbooks that focused on preparing them for giving birth and raising children). Despite this, Widdowson demands some "explanation" for why the film is considered a propaganda film.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here are some details from the same summary about what life was really like at the school:

The food the students received at the KIRS was less than satisfactory. One student wrote, “if the milk was not sour, it was burnt.” There were many complaints about eating porridge all the time which was old, without milk or with sour milk. They would also receive mush that had big lumps for lunches or dinners. The students had to eat all their food or they had to sit there until they did. Students would break into the kitchen and take food because they were not given enough to eat. One student lost some of her teeth because of the food. She lost some of her teeth because the young children who cleaned the beans and would not wash away the little rocks in them. The KIRS staff ate at a different table and had different meals than the students. Many students account that the priests and nuns had good food. Students were not only malnourished at the school but disciplined through physical punishment.

Bed wetting was treated in a harsh matter at the KIRS. Students who wet the bed had to wash their own sheets and if you were a boy this was particularly humiliating because you had to cross over to the girl's side to the laundry room, which allowed everyone to know you were a bed wetter. The staff would also take the student's sheet and wrap them around their head and make them walk down the hall past other students, who would tease them. Bedwetting was a type of physical and emotional abuse. Other students as well experienced emotional abuse at KIRS.

The emotional abuse described by the students at the KIRS has caused detrimental effects to many students. Many survivors have trouble expressing their emotions. A student summarized the impact residential school had on his life, and he still cannot show his inner feelings towards family or for people in pain. A common feeling of the students was they became isolated. Many are angry because it has affected their relationships not only with their children and spouses, but their grandchildren. Many students lost strong connections with their parents and communities.

Sexual abuse at the KIRS could be under recorded due to the shame associated with it and privacy of the students. Male and female students were both subjected to sexual abuse; however, there is more testimonial evidence that female students were more likely to be sexually abused. Many girls grouped together in order to avoid sexual abuse. A female student commented that her female friends all “hung out together” and would stay in groups. In this particular case there was one staff member described as a “big tall guy,” and named Anthony who worked in the basement and was known to sexually molest girls.One female student recalls her sister telling her to stay away from him because, “he [had] these girls, he [got] them by themselves and he sexually [molested] them downstairs in the basement.”

I excerpted these paragraphs from an undergraduate senior thesis which goes on for several more pages about other incidents at the school. It does not mention any murders, but it notes that many students tried to run away from the school.

It beggars belief that Widdowson's intention was to write a fair analysis of possible mass burial when she cited Behind Closed Doors no fewer than five times, but completely ignored the book's documentation of widespread abuse. (She uses it only as negative evidence against claims of murder, although of course unmarked burials could also result from neglect.)

In conclusion, Widdowson's article raises some legitimate concerns about the claim of a mass burial of 215 children which was quickly repeated by the news media and politicians, but I find her counterargument is extremely biased in its treatment of sources. Furthermore, the case of the 750 unmarked graves shows that unmarked burials at residential schools did happen. The New York Post's claim that "academics" have "debunked" the Kamloops mass grave is false.

I think it is too early to determine whether there are mass graves of indigenous children in Canada, but there are certainly unmarked graves at residential schools.

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    It is perfectly reasonable to assert that false stories about mass graves have been used to promote a "moral panic", even taking as established the abuse at residential schools. The latter has been known about for a long time, and is an entirely separate issue from burials. Talking about mass graves adds an entire new dimension to the moral calculus, by planting in peoples' minds the idea a) that the abuse was commonly fatal and b) that the dead children were not respected in death, nor their parents' traditions with regard to burial. Neither of these is in evidence, apparently. (2/3) Jun 29 at 21:16
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    The only concrete disputation I see in the article, aside from the graves themselves, is the claim that large numbers of children were "forced" to attend the school - which is a much more difficult and subjective topic to work out. There is nothing in the Post article about "propaganda"; the personal subjective judgments of the academics in question (including Widdowson) are simply off topic here. This answer comes across as though you are deliberately bringing in tangential claims in order to score political points (see also: putting academics in scare quotes). (3/3) Jun 29 at 21:20
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    @KarlKnechtel The Post cites and links to Widdowson. That's why I respond to Widdowson's article. It seems you consider the claims Widdowson makes in her article to be irrelevant to her thesis, but I don't.
    – Avery
    Jun 29 at 21:28
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    @KarlKnechtel: The Post article contains an appeal to authority (nameless "academics"). It is fair to dispute the credentials of the authority in order to refute such an argument.
    – Kevin
    Jun 29 at 21:36
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    Academics disagree about stuff all the time. Someone pointing at a source that tells a different narrative with the available evidence, and complaining that this view is seen as "propaganda", is perfectly within the wheelhouse of what I expect responsible academics to do. No matter how ludicrous you consider that position, you are only arguing that the source is biased. If you want to dispute credentials, then actually do that, e.g. by checking out what degrees she has and arguing about their relevance. Bias does not prevent people from saying true things - beware of ad hominem fallacy. Jun 29 at 21:40
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Although this is ongoing, the current state is easy to describe.

There have been many investigations by indigenous groups on the sites of former Residential Schools using ground penetrating radar and similar technologies. These investigations have turned up several sites that give the appearance of containing many graves . The Kamloops site has not been excavated at this time, nor has it been positively identified that there are human remains there. This is true of many of the other sites.

In general there has been little opposition to the identification of those sites as graves, for a few reasons:

  1. Other unmarked graves have been discovered accidentally at schools and remains have been confirmed as human.
  2. In several cases these sites correspond to sites identified as graveyards by survivors of the schools;
  3. There is little doubt that such graves exist somewhere. While records of Residential Schools have not all been released, there are many oral accounts of students who disappeared or died in residential schools and whose remains have not been identified. Thousands of children are known to have died in Residential Schools, and many have no record of burial. The death rate at the schools was significantly higher than elsewhere, and other maltreatment was widespread. Even if the sites identified do not turn out to be graves, this does not affect number of deaths or the nature or quantity of the abuse that occurred at Residential Schools.
  4. GPR has proven a reliable indicator of the presence of graves in similar circumstances, though not 100%.
  5. For these reasons there has been little disagreement with the graves investigation from those who ran the residential schools.

The accusations of abuse and/or genocide do not depend on the existence of the graves. The unexplained deaths and the neglect, abuse and other mistreatment at Residential Schools, along with the compulsory and enforced attendance against the wishes of the parents, stands on its own without the identification of grave sites.

It is unlikely that the graves identified are "mass graves" in the sense of a large number of people all buried in the same place at the same time (and carrying implications of bodies "dumped in a hole"). What has likely been found is sites that contain the graves of many people. The media does refer to these as "mass graves", although they are not in the sense meant above.

There is no accusation that every grave found is of a native child immediately and deliberately killed. It is very likely that some graves would be from neglect, cumulative abuse, disease and natural causes. However to have a child taken away, and have that child die and never be told where they are buried is horrific enough.

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    Did most children sent to the schools die, or why use the expression "survivors of the schools"?
    – pipe
    Jun 29 at 15:28
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    @pipe It is common to use the phrase "survivors of abuse", even though most people on the receiving end of abuse are not killed. Many of these people prefer to describe themselves as "survivors" rather than "victims", because it focuses on their continued life after the events rather than the events themselves.
    – Graham
    Jun 29 at 16:16
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    There's no sources here, no citations for the most relevant part (It is unlikely that the graves identified are "mass graves"), and red herring pointing with the editorializing of the abuse otherwise known about these schools. This doesn't answer the question, never mind according to the site standards.
    – fredsbend
    Jun 29 at 20:43
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    The reason there is little "opposition" is that when you know that thousands of children died, saying "your suggestion that these may be their graves is wrong" is seen as nitpicking and irrelevant. Jun 29 at 23:25
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    @fredsbend Please don't even go there. If you want to know what happened at Residential schools please read up about it. But please don't go down the "nothing out of the ordinary happened" road. Not even the people responsible for the Residential Schools are saying that. Jun 30 at 1:18
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There has been no evidence of mass graves at residential schools. What has been found is evidence of large numbers of unmarked graves at many former residential school sites. Many of these graves and deaths had formerly been recorded and were originally marked, but records have been lost or destroyed over the years and the inexpensive wooden markers long since decayed as the schools shut down and maintenance stopped.

There is a difference between mass graves and unmarked graves.

These deaths were usually due to disease, neglect, and malnutrition rather than physical violence or direct murder. The bodies of the victims were rarely returned to their families. In fact, the families were very often not even notified their children had died: their children would be taken away by the authorities and that's the last time they were ever seen.

A very in-depth and well-referenced investigation is summarized in Volume 4 of the The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

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    "There have been no claims of mass graves at residential schools." Yes, there have. There have been many. For example, from Oct of 2021 from the NYT: 'Horrible History’: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada. Did you mean to say no evidence of mass graves?
    – fredsbend
    Jun 29 at 20:36
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    @fredsbend. That NYT article misrepresents reality: "Now an Indigenous community … says it has found evidence of what happened to some of its missing children: a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children on the grounds of a former residential school.". It is not a "mass grave" (a large number of bodies buried together at the same time). It is a large graveyard, with individual burials over many years, with the individual graves either never being marked, or the markers having deteriorated or later removed. The children died of abuse or neglect, but weren't murdered as a group. Jun 30 at 1:08
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    @RayButterworth Other than the reality that lots of children died naturally in that era, I agree with you. I'm only noting that there are high profile claims of "mass graves".
    – fredsbend
    Jun 30 at 4:33
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    >For just under one-third of these deaths (32%), the government and the schools did not record the name of the student who died. • For just under one-quarter of these deaths (23%), the government and the schools did not record the gender of the student who died. • For just under one-half of these deaths (49%), the government and the schools did not record the cause of death.
    – Mazura
    Jun 30 at 8:32
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    >• For most of the history of the schools, the practice was not to send the bodies of students who died at schools to their home communities. • For the most part, the cemeteries that the Commission documented are abandoned, disused, and vulnerable to accidental disturbance.
    – Mazura
    Jun 30 at 8:33
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https://nationalpost.com/opinion/the-year-of-the-graves-how-the-worlds-media-got-it-wrong-on-residential-school-graves

This is, to my knowledge, the most recent summary of the status of the various investigations of mass gravesites. The article contains various editorializing of the state of discourse, news media, fact-finding, and so on. Focusing on the relevant facts and summarizing:

  1. Various unmarked gravesites have been found at or near the grounds of former residential schools. This is a fact, and it is undisputed.

  2. The residential school system was very much responsible, mostly indirectly (through neglect and lack of proper facilities and care, rather than intentional systemic effort), for the killing of Indigenous children. The rate of children dying in those years, mostly through diseases such as Tuberculosis, was very high; at residential schools it was a statistically significant rate higher (the article states up to 5x higher). It is not in dispute that conditions of residential schools contributed to much higher rates of death of Indigenous children. What is in debate is that the residential schools were intentionally built as death-camps for Indigenous people, and that claim, to my knowledge, has not been proven.

  3. While many mass-or-unmarked gravesites (here using the term "gravesite" as "place confirmed to be containing human remains, or verifiable with concrete documentary evidence to have definitively contained remains in the past") were "discovered" recently, none of those were new. They were all gravesites that had previously been known about. Some quotes from the article:

The graveyard where Trudeau knelt was a Catholic cemetery, a community cemetery. Children and adults, Indigenous and settler, were buried there, going back generations. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the successor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, lists nine students who died at Marieval in the century between the school’s opening and its closing in 1997.

The Cowessess people noted from the outset that they didn’t discover any graves; the crosses and headstones had gone missing under disputed circumstances decades earlier, and ground-penetrating radar had been brought in to enumerate and pinpoint the location of each burial. Cowesses Chief Cadmus Delorme told CBC News: “This is a Roman Catholic grave site. It’s not a residential school grave site.”

It was Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir who pointed out, after the first shocking headlines: “This is not a mass grave, but rather unmarked burial sites that are, to our knowledge, also undocumented.”

  1. Many of the gravesites, which had been on the former grounds of residential schools, were anachronistic to the schools having been there; the gravesites predated the schools (in that people were being buried there before the schools were there) or the schools predated the gravesite (in that the schools had already closed before there was anyone buried there). Thus it is difficult to tell if, when, or how many, of the people buried there were actually deaths due to the residential school system.

I will answer the question as precisely as I can, using as precise language as I can:

Are there sites, somewhere in Canada, containing large numbers of bodies of Indigenous children who died at residential schools? Almost certainly. The body count of children in residential schools is too high for this to not be a fact.

Are there "mass graves" containing bodies of these children ("mass graves" meaning piles of bodies buried underground, as opposed to individual plots of land for each body, as in a common cemetery)? Nothing of the kind has yet, to my knowledge, conclusively been discovered (as in, actual bones being found; of course various media outlets have made such claims, which would of course be outrageous if they were to be true). The media's changing of terminology from "mass gravesite" to "unmarked gravesite" lends credence to the claim that this statement (that of a "mass gravesite" as described) is false; if it was true they would state as such and continue using the appropriate language.

Are the specific sites found in 2021 evidence of such large numbers of unmarked graves of children due to the residential school system? While it is likely true (and in some cases confirmed) that some of the bodies in those grave sites are children who died at residential schools, in none of the cases documented in 2021 were all of the bodies found in the grave sites due to residential schools, and furthermore it is unknown how many of those bodies were there due to the residential school system (it is known to be greater than zero, but less than "all", but nothing more precise than that is known factually). We do know approximate counts (due to bad recordkeeping I don't think we have precise counts, to the person, but we have rough estimates) of how many people died at each residential school, but only speculative linkage between those counts and the body counts in any given grave site.

And finally, perhaps the most important question: Are the graves themselves, in fact, unmarked, and does this mean anything? To answer this question precisely I will note that, in 2022, these gravesites are unmarked; that is easily factually verifiable. However, for historical context, it is noteworthy that monuments, especially neglected monuments, do not last forever. They erode over time, are damaged by people and animals, stolen, etc. It's also not always been common to use large, engraved headstones as monuments to the dead; such practice is relatively recent. Historically, much less durable materials have been used to make monuments, in particular wood, a much less durable material than stone, was used for a very long time. It is entirely reasonable to say that the gravesites may have at one time been marked, but those markings have been lost to time. In fact, the quote from the Cowessess leader above lends credence to such a story in that case. So, while the gravesites are, in 2022, factually "unmarked", the implication therefore that the people within them were neglected or treated unduly is specious.

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