Monday, May 31, 2021

Mass graves? My Catholic background, the 215 children, and a striking paucity of detail

Last March, when I packed up at my job to come do it at home, I brought a few books with me. One of them is the copy of the Truth and Reconciliation Report summary - the first volume of several, I believe, all of which, I believe, can also be found and accessed for free, online. I've had cause to turn to it this week, as there is ample mention in it of unmarked graves, and calls to action to find these graves, and "work with churches, Aboriginal communities, and former residential school students to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children." There are calls to action to "develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register" and for "the federal government to  ensure that appropriate measures have been taken to inform families of the fate of their children and to ensure that the children are commemorated in a way that is acceptable to their families" (that last is not one of the numbered "calls to action" but appears on page 260 of the Volume One: Summary segment of the book-form report). There is also discussion of how "the residential school cemeteries and burial sites... are abandoned, disused, and vulnerable to disturbance," that these graves are typically "unmarked," and there is a call to action "for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries... [including] the provision of appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children." (I haven't given the exact location of each quote but the section of the book in question is "The Challenge of Reconciliation," pages 258-263, a section entitled "Missing children, unmarked graves, and residential school cemeteries.") There may be more in the book about graves, but that - and a brief entry on page 19 - are it as for what is indexed.

What there is not mention of, as far as I can see, in said book, is "mass graves." (There is also no mention of mass graves in the original Tk’eml├║ps te Secwépemc press release about the discovery). And there seems to be an important distinction between forgotten cemeteries and unmarked graves, on the one hand, which is what is mentioned in the Summary, and "mass graves." It may not be important to some of you, and if you're already bristling with anger that the distinction troubles me, maybe you just want to skip what I write below. I am not seeking to make anyone angry, or to seem insensitive (I probably will do both). I just want to wrap my head around this story, and I'm having a bit of trouble doing it, because the news stories I've read so far - about half a dozen - are lacking precisely the details I need to feel like I know just how disgusted and outraged I need to be. 

Allow me to backtrack a bit, and give some personal context. I was raised Catholic, with Catholic parents; I went to catechism classes, read Bible stories in children's books, prayed regularly as a boy, and at around age 12, received first communion - the "body of Christ," placed in your open mouth, a kind of taste-free papery wafer that kind of fascinated me (about the only part of Catholic ritual I liked). Shortly after receiving first communion, however, things began to turn for me; I was questioning the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing Deity (and remember apologizing in prayer to God for not really believing in him, asking him to forgive me if I was wrong). Mostly, though, I didn't want to have to go to confession, which was seen as part-and-parcel of receiving communion - because, as a pubescent boy, I was sinning pretty regularly back then, sometimes several times a day, and had the wisdom to not want to talk about what I was doing to a priest in a dark booth (this being years before I had heard anything about Catholic priests sexually abusing young boys). Plus I didn't feel the slightest bit contrite about what I was doing with my body; it didn't feel sinful, which got me questioning why the hell I would want to "confess" it in the first place, just because the church thought (presumably) that it was sinful; it was the last thing I wanted to talk about with any adult, something private, about me and my body. So without mentioning that real reason to my parents, I stopped going to church, only going a handful of times after that, to humour Mom and Dad on Christmas, for instance (and once because a Muslim acquaintance of mine asked me if I would be his "guide," because he was curious about what a Catholic service looked like, never having seen one - fun story, but a bit besides the point). I heard, occasionally, of Catholics who I respected - the Berrigan brothers, for example, who embarrassed the church with their committed anti-war activism - but mostly, in terms of culture and literature, it was lapsed Catholics (Robert Stone, Graham Greene, even, uh, Georges Bataille) who spoke to me - to the extent that I thought of Catholicism at all.

What really disgusted me about the church, however - in terms of my personal experiences - was that the parish priest in Maple Ridge, who gave my father the last rites, refused, after Dad died in 2009, to perform a full funeral service for my father unless his body was intact (maybe even present, I forget). My father - a good man not particularly versed in the rules of his faith - had requested there be no coffin, no plot - just a cremation; the thought of his body lying dead underground disturbed him ("no bugs on me," was how he put it in hospital, making various nurses around him chuckle). Rather than a burial plot, he wanted his ashes to be scattered with my mother's, when she should pass (which was also what she wanted). He asked me to choose a place, which I still am hemming and hawing about. But the priest made very clear, as I explained these wishes to him, that this was all objectionable to him - I can't explain why now, exactly, but it was breaking the "rules" of the church, and he told us that if my father's body was cremated, there could be no funeral. He could mention his passing in a service and say a prayer for him - and later did, with Mom and I in attendance, which was the last time I was in a Catholic church - but no full ceremony could be performed without my father's body being intact.

Well, fuck you, buddy: the audacity of standing face-to-face with grieving people, telling them that the rules of your institution are more important than the needs and wishes of the bereaved, angered me (and Mom, too - she stopped going to church after that, though she did continue to pray). Plus, y'know, coffins are expensive (cremations, too, but less so) and we didn't have the money for much more than a cremation, which itself cost around $800 in those days. Doing it the priest's way would have not only been contrary to my Dad's wishes - it would have cost us a few thousand dollars we didn't really have, at that point. Great way to follow the teachings of a man whose primary moral concern was ministering to the poor!   

That's a roundabout way of pointing out that I know from personal experience that the Catholic faith has definite ideas about what should be done with bodies - who can be buried in sanctified ground, what sort of state their body needs to be in, what rituals have to be performed so that the soul may enter heaven, and how important all this stuff is to them. So when the first reports broke a few days ago about 215 children buried in a mass grave outside Kamloops, I was very curious: what was the state of the bodies? Was this an unmarked, forgotten cemetery, with individual plots and signs that the bodies had been, whatever else might be said, "respectfully" entreated to the rituals that Catholics have around death? Or was this basically just - sorry - a pit that bodies had been thrown into? 

That's the definition of "mass grave," by the way. If you go to Google, and type "mass grave definition," what Google comes back with is, "a pit dug in the ground to receive a large number of corpses," giving the example sentence of, "2,800 civilians were massacred and buried in mass graves." 

Facebook friends seem to think I'm weird for caring about this distinction ("does it matter?" one wrote), but in trying to visualize what happened in Kamloops, trying to understand it, and how to react to it (I mean, horror and grief and shame and rage aside), yes, it actually makes a huge difference to me to imagine an unmarked cemetery, where maybe there WAS some Catholic ritual around each burial, showing the priests at least attempting to care for the souls their charges, albeit on their own strange and questionable terms, or a pit with multiple bodies piled inside. Either way, it's wrong and bad, but it's one thing for someone supposedly trying to convert children to the same religion, to treat their body - when they die of the abuse your religion justifies/ facilitates/ permits and/or turns a blind eye on - with the respect that your religion DEMANDS; and quite another to disrespectfully discard of them like garbage. And while the former scenario allows for the practice of burying children to have gone on for a long time, the second (215 people in one grave) suggests a mass wave of death - a massacre, the definition above offers, or perhaps, more likely in this case, an outbreak of disease. Either way, the children are dead, and a great wrong has been done - I am not defending the Catholics or the residential school system or the Indian Act or so forth - but the latter is, to me, a more repugnant scenario, one much harder to fit my mind around, one that is somewhat (to my knowledge) unprecedented in the known history; one requiring much more of an explanation. 

None was provided, that I saw, in those first articles I've read. The first few news reports I saw on the CBC and News1130, made no mention of the nature of the site. They talked about how the bodies were located, but not if we were talking about individual plots. It gave no indication of how the count had been arrived at. It offered no information as to how long the bodies had been buried, or even if any had yet to be excavated. Presumably, some of this is yet to be determined, but it's information I still haven't been able to find online (if you have read an article that has some of these details, please share it. The most informative I've found thus far has been from the National Post, which provides some historical context - it begins a bit glibly, but strikes the right notes by the end). 

But since those first few, cautious, information-scarce stories I read, newspapers everywhere have moved to talking about a "mass grave" in Kamloops - which, if they are using words carefully, is the more troubling scenario by far, by me. Like I say, for a school that operated as long as the Kamloops one did, a cemetery filling slowly over time is one thing, but 215 dead in a short period... is quite another. (As is the idea of throwing bodies in a pit for a long period - like this could somehow have been a normal practice, which no one questioned...?). But these news stories are using the language of a mass grave without explaining it, without it being clear if they are just using the term in a sensationalistic, inaccurate way. It seems to have crept into the journalism around this crime - from not being used to being used routinely - without anyone having gained or offered more information. It raises more questions than answers have been provided for.

I still don't know what the situation was in Kamloops. Like I say, the volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee report I have at home makes no mention of mass graves. But volume 4, devoted to missing children, does have a section on burial practices, where we read this, about a different school:

Several of the schools were overwhelmed by the influenza pandemic of 1918–19. All but two of the children and all of the staff were stricken with influenza at the Fort St. James, British Columbia, school and surrounding community in 1918. Seventy-eight people, including students, died. Initially, Father Joseph Allard, the school principal, conducted funeral services at the mission cemetery. But, as he wrote in his diary, the 'others were brought in two or three at a time, but I could not go to the graveyard with all of them. In fact, several bodies were piled up in an empty cabin because there was no grave ready. A large common grave was dug for them.'

This passage appears on page 119. There is mention of another school in Red Deer where, due to lack of funds, children who died in that same flu epidemic were buried "two to a grave." That, however, would appear to be it, all there is on record previously about mass burials at residential schools. I have not read the whole volume yet, but doing a CTRL+F search for incidents of the word "mass grave" together turns up nothing; mass whippings and mass floggings, yes, but no mass graves. "Common grave" turns up only the entry above. It seems quite likely that it could have been the same influenza epidemic that caused a wave of deaths in Kamloops - that could be one explanation for 215 people dying in a short enough time to be buried together - but the sheer number of dead still staggers the imagination, if the largest mass grave previously on record on residential school land contained 78 people. 

Maybe this all seems like weird quibbling, I don't know - like I say, some of my Facebook friends seem to think so. But the details here trouble me, and I want to understand them. I think reading the whole chapter on the report of the TRC about "Missing Children and Unmarked Burials" is pretty essential now, for all Canadians. I hope I haven't offended anyone in my attempts to make sense of this. There's a lot more I need to learn, obviously. There's a lot more I want to understand. 

Whatever the case, it is clear that the Catholic church needs to be held to account here, in particular, and the government of Canada needs to truly devote some resources to finding and documenting any other such graves - mass or not - on residential school land. I don't much trust Justin Trudeau to "do the right thing" here (I do trust he will say the right thing, but that's a different matter). I certainly don't trust the church. But since, as the Globe and Mail says, this is "just the tip of the iceberg," I think it's important to understand exactly what we're talking about here... 

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