The claim that thousands of Indigenous children who attended Canada’s Indian Residential Schools between 1883 and 1996 are buried in “mass graves” across Canada, reputed victims of genocide, is slowly being exposed as a hoax.

Though the missing children and genocide claims have been bandied about for decades, their widespread promotion began May 27, 2021 with a media release from the Chief Kamloops Indian Reserve in British Columbia that was broadcast around the world claiming “confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

But focusing solely on the recent history of both the genocide and mass grave allegations neglects their historical roots and impact, namely that what could be called an Aboriginal-style blood libel seems to have been in the air for at least three decades.

The precise origins of the accusation that the Indian Residential Schools were houses of horrific abuse are still unclear though Kevin Annett, a defrocked United Church of Canada cleric, is named by many as a key promoter.

He has done so by giving countless addresses, producing many videos, and publishing several books, his only vocations since being expelled from the United Church in 1995, five years after his ordination, allegedly for what were considered outrageously libelous rants from the pulpit.

One story widely distributed by Annett, claimed Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip took a group of students from the Kamloops Indian Residential School on a picnic and then abducted them. Fact checking shows that the Royals were nowhere near Kamloops when they travelled to Canada in 1964.

According to the National Post’s Terry Glavin, if you believe Annett, you would have to accept that:

“A team of German doctors arrived at the Kuper Island Indian residential school and began conducting strange medical experiments on the children. Employing large hypodermic needles, they injected some sort of toxin directly into the chests of the school’s young inmates, and several as a result; in the 1950s and 1960s, Aboriginal children at a Vancouver Island medical research facility were tortured with electrodes implanted in their skulls. At least one child was beaten to death with a whip fitted with razors; at the Hobbema and Saddle Lake Indian residential schools in Alberta, children were incinerated in furnaces; at St. Anne’s Indian residential school in Fort Albany, Ontario, children were executed in an electric chair.”

As political scientist Frances Widdowson has argued, “These stories were given additional momentum in May 2021 and are now firmly ensconced within the Canadian consciousness.”

How firmly ensconced they are was revealed in a recent poll sponsored by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute showing that 60% of Canadians still believe that “215 Indigenous residential school children were buried in a mass grave on school grounds in Kamloops, BC,” with just 15% disagreeing.

In a widely read National Post piece called “The year of the graves,” Terry Glavin argued “it wasn’t the Indigenous people directly involved who made the disturbing claims that ended up in the headlines.” Rather, “From the beginning, the local Indigenous leaders tended to argue for careful, thoughtful and precise language when describing the results of ground penetrating radar studies.”

As an example, he quotes Kamloops Chief Rosanne Casimir stating in response to the first shocking headlines of mass graves, “This is not a mass grave, but rather unmarked burial sites that are, to our knowledge, also undocumented.”

But Glavin has grossly exaggerated the lack of Indigenous culpability in spreading the mass graves and genocide stories.

Including Kamloops, he was only able to offer four examples of Indigenous leaders supporting his assertion. The words of a much larger and far more influential cohort of leaders, past and present, suggests these four are outliers.

Even the Kamloops example needs to be discounted. Casimir moved the following resolution at the Assembly of First Nations annual general meeting in July 2021:

“(The Chiefs-in-Assembly) stand in solidarity with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (Kamloops Indian Band) and all survivors of the Residential School System and their families and assert that the mass grave discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School reveals Crown conduct reflecting a pattern of genocide against Indigenous Peoples that must be thoroughly examined and considered in terms of Canada’s potential breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law.” (Emphasis added)

Glavin and others also failed to look for similar resolutions or statements about mass graves that followed one after the other from Indigenous leaders, associations, and media sites, including the Saddle Lake Cree Indian Reserve, the Windspeaker.com online Indigenous newsletter, the statement from Southern Chiefs’ Organization, representing 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota Nations, the Final Resolution of the Union of British Columbian Chiefs, representing over 150 of the province’s Indian Bands, the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, representing and advocating for the 203 First Nations in British Columbia, and Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

What can be said with some certainty at this uncertain point in Canadian history is that Indigenous politicians and activists are responsible for inflicted damage on this country that may never be reversed.

Hymie Rubenstein is editor of REAL Indigenous Report and a retired professor of anthropology, the University of Manitoba.

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