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I remember seeing the headlines and reading the stories while visiting relatives in Canada. In June of 2021, Sarah Beaulieu, an anthropologist who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley, claimed to have found the graves of 215 Indigenous children at the site of a former Indigenous school in Kamloops British Columbia (later revised down to 200).

The story spread like wildfire with articles appearing in The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, 60 Minutes, and a variety of other outlets. NPR would produce six stories on the issue and the related topic of Catholic residential schools.1 Not to be outdone, the progressive Christian magazine Sojourners would publish seven stories on the subject.2 Some of those stories recorded how Justin Trudeau ordered flags around the country to be flown at half-mast and demanded that the Pope apologize. The Pope obliged during a visit to Canada in July of 2022. The Canadian Press would name the whole revelation Canada’s 2021 news story of the year.

What is astounding amid this high-level hand-wringing, story-awarding, and apologizing is that professional journalists, politicians, and academics failed to do one simple thing—verify the epistemological basis for the claim. Beaulieu had used ground penetrating radar to find 215 anomalies, which she claimed were probable gravesites. A month after the media storm Beaulieu relayed in The Globe and Mail, one of the only papers to mention this point, “…we need to pull back a little bit and say that they are ‘probable burials,’ they are ‘targets of interest,’ for sure.”

Unfortunately, news outlets such as The New York Times, NPR, and Sojourners simply ran with the story without patiently waiting for further confirmation and evidence. For example, here’s a sentence from a June 19, 2021, NPR All Things Considered story that got two foundational facts wrong, “Remains of more than 300 children have been found at Indigenous boarding school sites in Canada.” The initial estimate of remains was 215 (later rounded down to 200), and the actual remains were not found. That last missing detail did not prevent The Washington Post from speculating, “How did the children die?”

Why did all these media sources run with a story that even the person making the original claim said needed to be confirmed with more evidence? It stems from the lack of impartiality—the virtue necessary before one evaluates evidence related to judgment and justice. As I discussed in my previous post on this topic, Christians in particular should be the best at this virtue.

Later, an August 2021 CBC story about a residential school in Nova Scotia noted that bodies had failed to be found at one residential school. Only two years later did a story came out from an online source, Quillette, that demonstrated curiosity and impartiality by questioning the official narrative and the failure to produce the bodies.

Later that month the New York Post followed up the story with the headline “Still No Evidence of Mass Graves of Indigenous Children in Canada.” Interestingly, the story ended by referring to the view of First Nations Professor Eldon Yellowhorn, Sarah Beaulieu’s former dissertation advisor. He told the Post “that he too was cautious about the veracity of some of the more highly charged claims. Yellowhorn, a member of the Blackfoot Nation, had been hired by Canada’s powerful Truth and Reconciliation Commission to search for and identify gravesites of Indigenous children at the residential schools. But he said then that many of the graves he found were from actual cemeteries and it wasn’t clear how they died.”

There have not been any bodily revelations since these stories. One would think this kind of salacious, but questionable, anti-Catholic story would only be found in Chick Tracts. Instead, it was front-page news in every major “reputable” Western publication.

The results were catastrophic for Canadian churches. According to one blogger, since the residential schools’ announcement over 100 Canadian churches have been vandalized or burned. Just this past month, another major church in Toronto was lost to flames (the cause is not yet determined).

As with many stories that caused frenzies, those associated with it continue to assert there is something to the story. Professor Beaulieu continues to claim that ground-penetrating radar discoveries are meaningful. The CBC has recently released stories about the limits of ground-penetrating radar, but ultimately the reporters expressed little doubt that bodies would be found.3 A May 27th, 2024 Vancouver City News story started their story with a trigger warning, “This article contains details that may be distressing to some readers. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society operates a 24-hour crisis line to support survivors and families across the country. The Lamathut Crisis Line can be reached by calling 1-800-721-0066.” There was no mention that the bodies had not been found. One true believer recently claimed the bodies were incinerated.4

What Not to Learn

The lesson to learn from this odd and disheartening affair is not that Indigenous schools were fine and no students went mysteriously missing. Community re-education camps for certain ethnic groups are what currently happens in communist countries such as China with the Uyghurs, but they have also been part of the history of Western liberal democracies.

We should not shy away from criticizing this historical practice or its present occurrence in China. Whether one draws upon sphere sovereignty, subsidiarity, or some other Christian political school of thought to guide one’s political philosophy, it should be a basic Christian imperative that governments must not take away the children from parents of a whole people group and re-educate them simply based on their ethnicity. One good thing about the discovery, development, and defense of parental rights is that it sustains the important idea that the state should only take away children on a case-by-case basis when the state can prove the parents have abandoned responsibility for basic care. Thus, the lessons to be learned here are of a different sort and should not in any way whitewash any historical moral problems with residential schools.

The Vice of Partiality and Confession

The blame for this rush to judgment stems primarily from the epistemological partiality of the journalists, politicians, and academics involved. These professionals have developed the bad habit of not accurately or thoroughly assessing claims from groups or individuals they deem oppressed. They trust but do not verify knowledge claims or academic work produced by this special group. Ironically, Beaulieu, the First Nations scholar, even mentioned needing to confirm her findings. The elite transmitters of public knowledge and moral judgment failed to listen.

Of course, the Christian thing to do in these situations is to confess that one is wrong. In this regard, I hope any Christian publications that spread this story follow Francis Collins’s lead in admitting past mistakes regarding spreading unsupported scientific findings to the public or spouting poorly grounded moral imperatives based on such findings (see here and here). Christians have important theological reasons not to be defensive when proven wrong. We should love truth but recognize we do not always understand or communicate it.

Of course, I would not expect such confessions from secular politicians and news sources. In fact, Quillette just released a third-anniversary update that chronicles how both the press and political figures are trying to avoid having to take any responsibility for failing to verify the story and account for the physical and emotional damage of spreading the story.

Most recently, Canadians were told that the National Gathering on Unmarked Burials scheduled for June 11–13, 2024 was postponed. No reasons were given, although it is likely because the supporting evidence was not found. We should all remain open to empirical evidence if it emerges, but we should not report such findings without due journalistic or academic impartiality and diligence. Christian scholars should especially seek to imitate and embody God’s virtue of impartiality when making or passing along academic and moral judgments about knowledge.

Footnotes

  1. https://www.npr.org/2021/06/19/1008395387/discovery-of-remains-at-residential-schools-prompts-calls-for-indigenous-reparathttps://www.npr.org/2021/10/05/1043156113/canada-indigenous-children-residential-school-burial-searchhttps://www.npr.org/2022/07/25/1113498723/pope-francis-apology-canada-residential-schools-indigenous-childrenhttps://www.npr.org/2022/04/20/1093809980/investigating-the-tragic-history-of-federal-indian-boarding-schoolshttps://www.npr.org/2022/07/25/1113378991/pope-apology-canada-indigenous-schoolshttps://www.npr.org/2022/07/29/1114613166/indigenous-peoples-react-to-the-popes-apology-for-canadas-residential-schools
  2. https://sojo.net/magazine/septemberoctober-2021/reckoning-genocide; https://sojo.net/articles/canada-indigenous-meet-pope-ask-residential-school-records; https://sojo.net/articles/trudeau-says-pope-should-apologize-church-role-residential-schools; https://sojo.net/articles/indigenous-boarding-schools-and-responsibility-we-inherit; https://sojo.net/articles/shame-and-unambiguously-pope-begs-forgiveness-indigenous-schools; https://sojo.net/articles/pope-francis-apologizes-canadian-indigenous-wrongs-residential-schools; https://sojo.net/magazine/septemberoctober-2023/it-came-back-haunt-them
  3. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/video/1.7172781; https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/video/1.7171200 
  4. https://x.com/Harry__Faulkner/status/1795459669936222331

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

12 Comments

  • Rodney Honeycutt says:

    As a scientist, I agree that one must communicate observations accurately. In the case of indigenous populations, the U.S. and Canada have a history of abusing these people. There are testimonies by native Americans who experienced abuse in Catholic schools during the period of forced education policies. Currently, so-called Christian groups are advocating removal of rights previously granted to fellow citizens in this country. Therefore, as Christians, we need to give some serious prayer and contemplation about God’s calling and Christ’s teachings.

    • Gordon Moulden says:

      Amen. Canada has set up a “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission in order to deal with our own history in this regard. It is an apt name: seek reconciliation in line with the truth. Impartiality is much needed, and as Perry’s article illustrates, has recently been very challenging for us as a nation. (Really hard when one’s own emotions are stoked!).

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    I see a very dangerous parallel being played out since the October 7th massacre in Israel last year. I wonder how many of the pro-Palestinian protesters occupying space–and often intimidating anyone they view as being opposed to their cause–have any awareness of the history behind what happened last year, a history that goes back thousands of years. The parallel I’m referring to is a lack of understanding, of even desiring to ascertain, the truth of what had actually occurred both in Israel and Kamloops, in the name of social justice. One of the most shocking statements was spoken by the leader of the Human Rights Commission in the province of British Columbia, on hearing the news of churches in BC’s interior being set ablaze in response to the reported findings in Kamloops: “Let them burn”–this only months after questioning the BC government’s refusal to explain their policy of refusing to allow worship services in churches while permitting AA and Narcotics Analysis meetings in the same buildings during the pandemic.

    But in a way I suspect that leader’s “Let them burn!” comment reflects the same urge driving the on-campus encampments: a desire to be speak, act, and be publicly viewed as as champions of social justice, and one which rejects any sense of a need, or even respect for impartiality. Impartiality is likely seen by those supporting both causes as cold, uncaring, antisocial, and therefore, anathema.

    And so the church, and Christian schools and universities are in a position of risk: to be viewed as enemies of social justice out of a need to be act and speak truthfully (or remain silent as a means of not giving support to demonstrators) to maintain impartiality risks alienating, and having a bad name, in the minds of those who want to see “justice” done because it is their pet cause. We need to live according to the truth, to speak the truth in love, and, to do everything in love–impartially. It is not always an easy way to build bridges with those who are spiritually outside our faith communities.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    As an addendum to this, the practice of “virtue signalling”, to speak or act so as to be publicly regarded as a supporter of a particular cause in order to protect or promote one’s name, is a trap into which individual believers and Christian institutions need to steer very clear of. I cannot truthfully claim to be sinless in this regard.

  • Chasity Lucio says:

    I find it fascinating that you have chosen to speak about Indigenous issues again. What transpired in Canada should have had an immediate impact in the US as well, to search the grounds of the well known and not so well know residential boarding schools of Indigenous children. The telling thing about these headlines about grave sites being uncovered on the grounds of known residential schools was that the truth of the survivors of those schools of the stories that they shared of their suffering, abuse, and rape had been revealed to the general population. These headlines were triggering and many survivors were forced to remember the abuses they experienced and cultural genocide of these schools that were overseen by the church. The WHY’s we had priests, pastors and people of the church abusing children at these schools are what you need to be talking about, Mr. Glanzer. That is the partiality that needs to step forward, the uncovering of the dirty and dark history of both Canada and the US of the atrocities that were placed on the original peoples of this land. How are you to spread the word of God to these nations if you cannot speak to the harm that the original inhabitants of this land experienced by the hands of those who claimed to be Christian? I do appreciate you using your platform to wade the waters; however, it would be so great to co-author some of your thoughts with Indigenous Christians, and even consider offering space for those to enter this space to support the headlines you are writing.

    • pglanzer says:

      Chasity, I agree with you that the truth of the moral abuses that happened to Native Americans should be revealed and discussed by Christians (and tried to make that clear in my post). Yet, the reality of these past abuses should not lead us to the vice of partiality when it comes to making judgements about this particular situation. In fact, you are still labeling the discovery as the discovery of “grave sites” when they have not been confirmed to be grave sites. They were anomalies detected by ground penetrating radar that have yet to be confirmed as grave sites with actual remains (or in some cases they have found remains that were not clearly connected to residential schools).

      • Chasity Lucio says:

        I used “grave sites” as there are oral histories and memories from survivors from residential schools of children killed or who had died while at the school, so it was not something surprising that there may have been discovered such a thing on the grounds. You splitting hairs on the use of that is perplexing. What if they are actually graves? Either way, the ground penetrating radar searches are showing reflections of what might be reflective of what a grave may be, and pairing that with knowledge, it helps to confirm that something happened. There are one too many stories of babies being born from these schools ran by churches that were born from those in authority who raped the children at these schools. There are many stories that also talk about these newborns being thrown into the furnace. Are you adamant to not use “grave sites” to lessen the urgency of the horrendous acts that were experienced by Native American children in both the US and Canada? Or are you just annoyed that the headlines have ran with a narrative that you do not believe to be true? These are real stories of image bearers who were children being harmed by “God loving Christians” who have to relive trauma regardless of the use of “grave sites” or “reflected anomalies” with the work that has started to happen on the grounds of a historical school that was created by the governments of these countries and the administration of these schools were of Christian people. Again, I am thankful that you are bringing light to some of these issues; however, maybe you could co-write with a Native American to help. Especially if these anomalies over time and scientific research do actually reveal what it could be…

      • pglanzer says:

        Chasity, my main concern is that we practice the virtue of impartiality in this particular case. Practically speaking, it actually hurts Native American efforts to share the tragic stories when we do not. If bodies are claimed to be found but then no remains are found, it will not awaken people to this sinful and tragic past. Instead, it will harden people, and they become doubtful about the oral testimonies or histories.

    • Gordon Moulden says:

      It is true; real atrocities took place. The residential schools should never have been set up in Canada, and the churches should NEVER have acquiesced to administer them. There needs to be reconciliation according to the truth of what happened. But for this to take place properly, non-indigenous voices seeking to engage in self-seviing virtue signalling need to stay out of it.

  • Edward Allen says:

    My daughter lives in the Yukon, and I have conversed with her about this article. While the point about impartiality is well taken, the article seems to ignore the broader evidence in the Canadian indigenous schools situation. It does not exhibit the impartiality that it advocates. The article appears to take one point from those who deny the broader evidence and builds a tiny objection based on it. The article may be accurate in what it says, but all the other evidence suggests that the anomalies found at Kamloops are graves. If there are more than 4000 recorded names of children who went missing at Canadian Indigenous schools, they have to be somewhere. Check out a somewhat biased but evidence-based article on the whole subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Indian_residential_school_gravesites

    As I wrote to my daughter, the Wikipedia article details the vastness of the problem and the wealth of evidence for the broad reach of the problem. However, suggesting that all the children in the graves were murdered or abused goes beyond the evidence. Many probably died of tuberculosis. The evil did not reside so much in those who ran the schools, though there were undoubtedly evil people in at least some of the schools. The system was evil in its goals and means.

    The United States has not yet reckoned with its culpability in the similar system the US government ran.

    • pglanzer says:

      I find your response demonstrates why impartiality is needed.
      • You establish epistemological authority by writing the following : “my daughter lives in the Yukon.” Yes, I too have relatives who live in Canada. That doesn’t relate to the actual findings.
      • “the article seems to ignore the broader evidence in the Canadian indigenous schools situation.” It doesn’t and actually acknowledges it (“The lesson to learn from this odd and disheartening affair is not the Indigenous schools were fine and no students went mysteriously missing.”
      • “The article appears to take one point from those who deny the broader evidence and builds a tiny objection based on it.”
      o I am not siding with those who deny the broader evidence and nothing in the article indicates that I do.
      o Why is the objection “tiny”? The specific claim about Kamloops made international news in multiple sources and was declared Canada’s story of the year. There was nothing “tiny” about the press coverage, national reaction, and international reaction.
      • “The article may be accurate in what it says, but all the other evidence suggests that the anomalies found at Kamloops are graves.” What is “all the other evidence”? I’m open to hearing it.
      • “If there are more than 4000 recorded names of children who went missing at Canadian Indigenous schools, they have to be somewhere.” Yes, but that doesn’t justify making claims about the Kamloops situation without evidence.
      • The Wikipedia audience you reference provides no more evidence about the Kamloops discovery other than that the site findings are confidential. Thus, we need to wait to hear if evidence is produced. If it is produced, then we should acknowledge it (and I will write about it in a blog post).
      • I agree with the last two parts of portion of your comment.

  • Michael Jindra says:

    Yes, unfortunately the whole debate obscured the deeper and more complex issue of assimilation/indigeneity among Native Americans. There are quite a few books that cover this fairly, including:
    Jonathan Lear’s “Radical Hope,” about how the Crow adjusted to the US state.
    Making Lamanites: Mormons, Native Americans, and the Indian Student Placement Program, 1947-2000 by Matthew Garrett.
    and a book I used when I taught a class on Racial and Ethnic Minorities:
    A Poison Stronger than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community. by Anestasia Shkilnyk
    All show the mixed legacy of assimilation policies like school, which were sometimes welcomed by natives who realized there has to be some adjustment to the new reality. The latter book (not about schools) show both why the Ojibwa were move from their dispersed settlements, because of the poor conditions there, but also why this move tore them from their traditional structures and led them on a downward spiral (along with the poisoning of their water). It gets deeply into cultural change and its causes and effects.
    But of course, some people prefer simplistic, often inaccurate narratives.

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