Two years ago, claims emerged in Canada that mass graves of indigenous children were found in residential schools run by Catholic and other religious groups. There was an instant outburst of public anger, some of it implicitly endorsed by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and in the aftermath of the claims, at least 83 churches have been burned or vandalised.
Nevertheless, since then, not one single mass grave has been discovered, despite several excavations. It appears that initial reports were grossly exaggerated.
At the time, horrific announcements were based on the unsubstantiated presupposition that some anomalies in the soil at the sites of the old schools detected by ground-penetrating radars were unmarked mass graves.
The Catholic and the Anglican Church, which administered those schools on behalf of the Canadian government, were accused of genocide.
After three weeks of attacks on churches, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the vandalism was wrong but “understandable given the shameful history we are becoming more aware of”.
However, no human remains had been unearthed then, and the most recent dig in the basement of a Catholic church in Manitoba also yielded no remains. This is the third excavation case that has turned up no results.
Jacques Rouillard, a professor emeritus in the Department of History at the Université de Montréal commented: “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.”
There is no dispute among historian that the conditions of those residential schools were poor, some terrible abuses took place, and the mortality rates were significantly higher than among pupils in regular schools, due to malnutrition and infectious diseases that spread easily in such environments.
During the wave of hysteria that resulted from the initial rumours, those advocating for a balanced historical perspective on the schools were labelled “genocide-deniers.”
James C McCrae, a former attorney general for Manitoba, had to resign from a government panel after he wrote a piece which questioned the sensational approach employed by campaigners.
He said: “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. … anyone who asks any questions or presents real evidence that might bring some relief and peace to indigenous families across Canada is silenced and/or shamed. Is the real truth not ugly enough? Everyone knows of the existence of the schools. Everyone knows there was abuse at some of the schools. Everyone knows there were criminal acts perpetrated against some unfortunate students. Everyone knows the schools played a regrettable part in the history of our country. It is not credible to deny those parts of our history. Why then, is it necessary to exaggerate and tell tales that make the history uglier than it already is?”.
Something similar happened here in Ireland, where many were led to believe that 800 children died in the Tuam mother and baby home that was run by the Bons Secours order and were dumped in a sceptic tank, even though the excavation to establish the truth is yet to begin.
As in the case of the Canadian residential schools, the worst claims about the mother and baby homes in this country have run ahead of the evidence.
Indeed, the official report into those homes ordered by the Government did not fit the most lurid claims about them and not did heap all the blame for their existence or how they were run on to the Catholic Church or the nuns.
Now we must wait for the results of the excavation at the former mother and baby home at Tuam and put the most sensationalist claims about what happened there on hold in the meantime.