SHEPHERD: A disconnect in claims around the latest residential schools grave investigation
SHEPHERD: A disconnect in claims around the latest residential schools grave investigation

The Tseshaht First Nation of central Vancouver Island, BC announced on Tuesday afternoon they believe 67 children died while attending the Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS). However, the land surveyor they hired to scan the site using ground-penetrating radar found only 17 soil disturbances, which the Nation interprets as unmarked graves.

How can we make sense of these two distinct numbers?

The Port Alberni-based First Nation hired BC land surveyor GeoScan in July 2022 to scan the grounds of the former AIRS site with ground-penetrating radar to detect soil disturbances that indigenous advocates understand to be the graves of deceased indigenous children. The school operated from 1892 to 1973 under various names.

GeoScan also used LiDAR, which is a drone-based laser scanning instrument, as well as other geophysical scanning technologies.

“We do not see human remains with geophysics,” GeoScan Geophysics Division Manager Brian Whiting stressed during the Tseshaht announcement. “There’s no such thing as a geophysical bone detector. We’re looking for very indirect evidence: disruptions in [soil] layers, reflections from things like potentially coffins if there were any.”

Retired University of Manitoba anthropologist Hymie Rubenstein has stated, “It is important to understand that ground-penetrating radar can only determine the presence of disturbed soil. It can’t identify bodies, let alone count them, determine their age at death or answer the question of whether the bodies were ‘dumped’ or given a proper service.”

While GeoScan found 17 soil disturbances in the 12 hectares of land they surveyed, the Tseshaht First Nation believes 67 children died at the school, based on personal interviews with residential school attendees and school archives. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has 29 recorded student deaths at AIRS, but Tseshaht Chief Councillor Ken Watts noted that figure should actually be 24.

Caption: Screenshots from the Tseshaht First Nation’s livestream explaining the figures they found of how many students passed away.

“Please bear in mind, two different numbers… they’re two independent ways of getting at the truth of the matter,” said Brian Whiting.

Tseshaht First Nation Executive Director Vicky White emphasized that they do not place the different forms of evidence in a hierarchy, as that is a “colonial tendency.”

To make sense of the numbers, think of it this way: the Nation is saying 67 children died as students of AIRS, even though many of them died in hospital or at home. The 67 figure being presented by the Nation includes the 29 already known to have died at the school declared by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). However, the NCTR list is unfortunately not an accurate one, and the Tseshaht Nation itself revised that number to 24, though independent researcher Nina Green has found further errors in the NCTR data. The Tseshaht Nation’s criteria for who else is included in that 67 figure is unclear, though they emphasize that their research relied on stories from residential school survivors.

The 17 figure presented by GeoScan refers to soil anomalies found on the former school grounds, though these are not necessarily “unmarked graves” of missing children because the scanned region may have been a known burial site, as well as the fact that any possible burials could actually contain the bodies of church members, school staff, or other community members – not necessarily indigenous schoolchildren.

Here’s one takeaway: children lived in close quarters in residential schools, which led many to sadly pass away from disease. Sometimes these sick children died at home, or in hospital, but some may possibly have been buried on school grounds. However, this cannot be confirmed without excavations, and no excavations have been done.

“On the topic of missing students, missing children,” Tseshaht Nation’s research lead Sheri Meding said, “many, many students who attended AIRS were sick, were in the infirmary and were either discharged to home and died at home or were discharged to one of the three Indian hospitals in the province.”

Meding stated, “overwhelmingly, the cause of death was due to medical conditions.”

To this, author of many books and articles on indigenous issues Frances Widdowson says, “It seems to be the ‘motte and bailey’ tactic once again. The uncontroversial claim (that children died from disease) is being used to buttress the unsubstantiated implausible allegation that there are 17 clandestine burials. We will not know whether the ‘17 soil disturbances’ are burials until there are excavations, but the band will be reluctant to do these. This is because excavations in the past have not found any clandestine burials. The insinuation that there are clandestine burials, however, will be used to extract more transfers from the government for more ground-penetrating radar work, ‘research,’ trauma assistance, et cetera.”

Renowned author and professor emeritus of political science Tom Flanagan also notes that the Tseshaht First Nation has not performed any exhumations, and doesn’t have a schedule in place to do so.

“The fact remains that there haven’t been any exhumations anywhere,” he says. “I doubt that they ever will, frankly.”

“As long as the media swallow these stories holus bolus, why should they exhume, why should they excavate?”

The Tseshaht First Nation announcement comes a year and a half after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of Kamloops, BC presented their ground-penetrating radar results. The Tk’emlúps band’s original 2021 announcement that they discovered “the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School” set off a show of shame in the country, though the Tk’emlúps band later downgraded the number of soil disturbances to 200. The Tk’emlups band and their research team also admitted that they would probably never really know how many “gravesites” are present, because they don’t currently plan on performing any excavations.

“The mainstream media keep replaying these stories over and over and over… they don’t do any genuine on the ground investigation… They allow themselves to be used as props in the drama. It’s very disheartening,” says Flanagan.