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Unmarked Graves Are Not Evidence

April 6, 2022

The news lately has been full of accounts of unmarked graves found near former residential schools, as if they were evidence of abuse that occurred there. The graves were located with ground-penetrating radar. Most people may not understand what this radar reveals. It’s only areas of soil disturbance. Such an area is likely a grave, particularly if many of them are grouped into a grid pattern. This would be an abandoned cemetery of unmarked graves. It’s certainly not a mass grave in any sense of the word. In fact, there might be only one new grave per year.

Indeed, the graves could have had markers. They could have been lost or removed later. The cemetery could have been shared, for example, by the school, the church, the hospital, the town, or the Indian band. The operator of the cemetery had to keep a record, just to know where to dig next. The record may not contain names or dates. It may have been lost when the cemetery was abandoned.

Children died in normal times, particularly before the many discoveries of modern medicine were made, and in poor living circumstances. Many more of them died in years of epidemics. We have forgotten about epidemics of the past. Smallpox, cholera, influenza, and tuberculosis tore through many communities.

We do have some reliable evidence. Certainly, eye-witness testimony is a good example. Family history is another. Residential schools were in operation for more than 100 years. No doubt there was some sexual abuse. There was also many intentional deprivations. Children were deprived of their language, their culture, and their religion. Evidence of that is not to be found in unmarked graves.

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