Some overdue news about "the news."
Weekend Special. It's personal & political & some of it's paywalled, but for all subscribers: Now that Pope Francis is arriving in Canada, what's happening in Kamloops, where the furore began?
A strange workweek is mercifully coming to a close. Next week threatens to be merciless. Or maybe not.
Pope Francis is arriving in Canada on an “apostolic voyage” that has its origins in globe-encircling news reports out of Kamloops last May about something that never even happened, and “1,300 graves discovered” last summer that weren’t really discovered, of children that might not even be “missing,” so it’s going to be weird.
The heartening news, and you’re reading it here first: Apart from the National Post there is another major Canadian news organization that has had quite enough of the traffic in fictions about all this and has now brought the hammer down. I’ll be coming to that below, for all readers.
For paying subscribers I’ve got more inside story for you that I haven’t been able to report until now: It’s about a national media institution that had the real story from the very beginning - about Kamloops, Cowessess, St. Eugene’s, Shubenacadie - but wouldn’t or couldn’t report it, depending on your point of view. That’ll be on the other side of the paywall. Sorry. It’s a delicate situation.
Anyway, my work on Year of the Graves is making the rounds again, for good or ill. Had a long talk with John Gormley at CKOM in Saskatoon (if you want to listen, scroll down to the show here, and an even longer conversation earlier in the week with Anthony Furey on his Postmedia podcast, here. But the main revisiting of all the historical revisionism is Jonathan Kay’s precis of Year of the Graves and the fallout from it, in Quillette today. It’s quite the scorcher. John and I will be having a conversation this weekend for the Quillette podcast.
As is necessary whenever this stuff comes up, a reminder: Year of the Graves wasn’t even about the legacy of Canada’s residential schools, about which I have expressed no particularly unconventional opinions. It remains my view that “cultural genocide” is not an unreasonable way to describe the purpose the federal government put to those schools, at least in the early years.
Year of the Graves wasn’t about challenging or contradicting what the local Indigenous leadership was saying at all those sites of former residential schools last summer - quite the opposite. Cowessess elder Lloyd Lerat put it most succinctly and insightfully: “It’s just the fact that the media picked up on unmarked graves, and the story actually created itself from there because that’s how it happens.”
Year of the Graves was about the enfeeblement of Canada’s news media, which isn’t just a consequence of the hemorrhaging of legacy media institutions. It’s about the substitution of knowledge with belief in a time of epistemological crisis, a weird phenomenon that’s eating away at the disciplines we’ve relied on for centuries to establish broad societal agreement about what constitutes the truth, and how knowledge itself is produced.
It’s out of that chaos that a new belief system is emerging that allows only one way to talk about Canada, about Canadian history, about Indigenous-settler relations, about race and gender, and about residential schools. It’s a hegemonic belief system that the Trudeau government is imposing on Canada with an almost messianic zeal, and if you dissent from the standard catechism you will be damned for the sin of apostasy.
I returned to the subject of the residential schools upheavals this week in the National Post because Pope Francis is coming to Canada. The column is a story about religion and reconciliation - about faith and redemption and miracles. The story of the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage is a story of the persistence of the harmlessly devout in their communal devotions, a tradition of Indigenous and settler customs and cultures coinciding and embracing and getting along quite splendidly.
It’s important to recall that the Indigenous people of Canada didn’t instigate last year’s convulsions. It was the Trudeau government that decided Canada needed its own “George Floyd moment,” the very day that the utterly false “mass grave” story out of Kamloops shocked the world. It was the prime minister who decided to lower the flags on all federal buildings across Canada, and kept those flags at half-mast for months on end.
In Year of the Graves I pointed out that it was the New York Times’ outrageous “Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada” story that kicked off the craziness (it’s still up, online, uncorrected). Kay’s account in Quillette takes aim mainly, but by no means exclusively, at the Times. The way he puts it: “I am not talking here about errors of tone, emphasis, shades of meaning, or omission. I am speaking of flat-out Trump-Won-The-2020-Election-style false information—what some call ‘fake news.’” And it carried on well after that initial “mass grave” report was explicitly refuted by T’Kem’lups chief Roseanne Casimir.
In my column this week I also reported that the T’Kemlups people are becoming increasingly impatient. They’ve spent 14 months waiting for answers to the question of whether there are any “graves in the apple orchard” at all, nevermind in the “mass grave” that was a media invention from the beginning and not something the T’Kemlups ever claimed to have discovered.
I spoke with T’Kemlups’ chief Casimir, who had nothing much to say that she hasn’t been saying for a year or so, and I’m not blaming her, and I spoke with former chief Manny Jules, among others. I also spoke at length with the author of an in-depth site inspection report about the Kamloops Indian Residential School’s much-discussed apple orchard. The report casts doubt on the probability that the anomalies picked up by the T’Kemlups’ ground-penetrating radar (GPR) specialist are graves at all. The report has now been made available to Casimir.
I’ve confirmed the report author’s identity and expertise. I agreed to allow him his anonymity because he was afraid of the consequences. I’ve come to know something about what it’s like to be cast out as a heretic.
I have tremendous respect for Manny Jules. I’ve known him half my life. It was a difficult conversation, because the T’Kemlups people have found themselves in an exceedingly awkward predicament. It’s not clear whether any children from the T’Kemlups community are really “missing” from the residential school days, exactly, and if there are any burials at all in the orchard, they aren’t believed to be T’Kemlups children. So it’s complicated.
Here’s that hammer coming down. On July 13 Globe and Mail deputy national editor James Keller dispatched an alert to all staff about a Globe styleguide addition on how to report residential-school graves stories. Snippets:
When covering these stories, we should be precise when describing these announcements, be specific about exactly what was found and how (for example, through the use of ground-penetrating radar), and attribute to the Indigenous community releasing the information.
I find this particularly satisfying because my main observation in Year of the Graves was that the coverage of last summer’s flag-lowering, statue-toppling, prime ministerial knee-taking pandemonium was almost entirely without regard for what the local Indigenous leadership at these former residential school sites were actually saying. In most cases they hadn’t even said anything like what they were reported to have said.
In the case of the “182 Unmarked Graves Discovered Near Residential School in B.C.’s Interior,” the Aq’am people never claimed to have discovered anything, and Chief Joe Pierre hadn’t even said anything at all. And when he did say something, he said, no, we haven’t “discovered” any children’s graves, and we’re talking about a cemetery here.
More on that Globe directive:
We should also include context about previous findings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the deaths of students at residential schools and, when relevant, describe ground-penetrating radar and the limitations of the technology. While opinion writers have more latitude than they would in news copy, opinion pieces must ensure the basic details of these discoveries are presented accurately and in context.
Thank you, James Keller. He goes on:
Never refer to mass graves. None of the discoveries from First Nations communities have involved mass graves and, while some of the early coverage described the findings this way, the term is and has always been inaccurate. Instead, refer to unmarked graves or unmarked burial sites.
. . . In June, 2021, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced it had located 751 potential unmarked graves in a defunct cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School using ground-penetrating radar. The cemetery was used to bury Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of all ages. As of September, 2021, the community had identified 300 of the graves using documentary evidence.
That last bit is a little bit insufficient, if I may be so bold as to suggest, but only a little. Better to report that the Cowess First Nation and the Regina Diocese have managed to identify the names of the individuals associated with about 300 of the graves. Also: Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme was explicit from the outset that the Marieval site was a Catholic cemetery, not a residential school graveyard. Prime Minister Trudeau was well aware of that when he visited the Marieval cemetery and took a knee with a teddy bear.
And just how many residential school children might be buried in the Marieval cemetery? It’s still not clear. Certainly not 751. On its memorial register, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation identifies only nine students who died after being enrolled at Marieval.
Trust in Canada’s news media continues to plummet. We’re all being drawn into opposing information silos, and it doesn’t help that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - which is supposed to be about all of us, for all of us - has retreated into a silo of its own.
The CBC brass seems either oblivious or indifferent to the phenomenon, and it’s either in spite of this or because of it that the CBC is weighed down with seven vice-presidents, ten directors-general, a $900,000-a-year “strategic intelligence department” and 143 executive directors including eight directors of finance, nine directors of legal services, 26 directors of “technology and infrastructure” and nine directors responsible for “people and culture.” Quite the operation, all overseen by the $436,000-a-year CEO Catherine Tait.
It’s a wonder that CBC reporters have any time or resources to cover the news at all. Just yesterday Blacklocks Reporter found that while revenues were plummeting and reporters were being laid off during the 2020/2021 Covid years, the CBC executives rewarded themselves and their colleagues $30 million in bonuses out of its $1.3 billion budget, topped up with a $21 million pandemic bailout.
Now for the reveal about what that other major Canadian news organization that knew all along but did not print about Kamloops, Cowessess, St. Eugene’s, Shubenacadie. . .
This is the really hard part. It’s personal. It’s beyond this paywall.