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Mainstream media slow to treat Kamloops discovery like a major story

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Mourners at memorial for children who died at Kamloops residential school. Image credit: Thomas_H_foto/Flickr

You're reading it here because you can't read it anywhere else. Not one major newspaper or media outlet in Canada carried news that should have interested every one of us -- Sunday's press release from the head of the religious order that was responsible for burying 215 bodies of Indigenous children in unmarked graves at a former residential school.

Given the calls for accountability that are now being voiced for one of Canada's most shameful tragedies, this omission must stand as one of the saddest failures of recent Canadian journalism.

A full three days after news broke of the shocking discovery of the bodies in Kamloops, B.C., Father Ken Thorson of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate issued a media release. Note that it was neither an apology nor a statement of responsibility.

I wish to express my heartfelt sadness and sincere regret for the deep pain and distress the discovery of the remains of children buried on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School brings to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, and other affected Indigenous communities, especially family members of the deceased. I appreciate the sensitive and respectful way in which this difficult work is being carried out. This heart‐breaking discovery brings the tragedy of the residential school system into the light once again and demands that we continue to confront its legacy.

The Missionary Oblates were administrators and teachers at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Through our own ongoing reflection, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we are growing into a deepening awareness of the damage caused to Indigenous peoples, the enduring harm caused by colonization and the part our religious order played in it through the residential school system.

This growing awareness leads us to an increased desire to listen deeply and learn from Indigenous communities where Oblates continue to live and minister. The Oblates remain committed to humbly participating in ongoing efforts towards reconciliation and healing for our role in this painful part of our shared history.

Although the world recoiled in disgust and amazement from what can only be seen as evidence of state-endorsed genocide, Canadian media at first treated this as a secondary story. The Toronto Star, as an example, chose to run its first story on the discovery of children's bodies on page 10 of its May 29 paper. The next day its follow-up story made page eight. The day after, the paper ran a picture of a shoe memorial at Ontario's legislature on page one but the story ran on page three -- and like the others made no mention of the role of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

The clear message: do we really need to care about this? It's an old, old story. People know there were abuses at residential schools. There was a full inquiry a few years ago. We'll quote the prime minister calling it "shameful" and report that flags were lowered for a day, but there are more important things to put on page one, like a hockey game or a sex scandal involving a retired Blue Jays baseball player.

Yet, clearly, Canadians care. They've erected commemorative shrines to the children across the country and taken to social media to express their horror and solidarity with the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation whose children were in the unmarked graves.

It used to be the role of newspapers to tell us what's news.

It wasn't until this Tuesday -- five days after the bodies were discovered -- that the Star gave it coverage that those of us who used to work there considered our duty: a story on page one, although only under a one-column news headline because it was really "old news" by then, an editorial, several columns and fuller news coverage. But still, the only mention of the religious order responsible appeared in a freelancer's column on the op-ed page. Like most other news stories published about the tragedy, the Missionary Order of Mary Immaculate was not identified by name.

To its credit, the National Post proved to be a rare exception. It distinguished itself by covering the story from the outset with appropriate moral context. Its news story of May 29 began:

"This week saw the discovery of something outside Kamloops, B.C., rarely seen in North America, much less in any corner of the developed world: Unmarked and previously forgotten graves, all belonging to children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School."

Only one Canadian newspaper published an interview with Father Thorson, May 31 in the local paper Kamloops This Week. He did not apologize but acknowledged the discovery of bodies and said his order was "part of a system that long did significant amount of damage to First Nations communities in Kamloops and in so many other places across the country." The paper's website included a link to his statement -- the only published reference to it that I could find.

At this writing, no media have effectively taken the story to its next logical level, pressing the Catholic Church for an apology or explanation -- something it has steadfastly refused to do, even though other religious orders have formally apologized for their roles of administering residential schools. Reporters should also dig into the scandal-ridden history in Canada of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

From 1893 to 1977, the Catholic order ran 57 of the 139 residential schools, 41 per cent of the total. They included the Kamloops school which was the country's largest. A formal apology from the Catholic Church was one of the recommendations of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, which estimated that up to 6,000 children may have perished under its custody.

The highest authorities of the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches have issued apologies for their roles in administering residential schools but neither Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church, nor his predecessors have done so. Neither have they offered any financial compensation for victims.

For much of the 20th century, every Indigenous child between age seven and 16 was forced to attend a residential school. In 1933, the religious administrators of residential schools were conferred legal guardianship of the children.

"The objective," in the chilling words of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was to "take the Indian out of the child."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, funded by the federal government to document the history and lasting impacts of the Canadian residential school system on Indigenous students and their families, issued 94 calls to action. Only about a dozen have been acted upon. In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for an apology from the Catholic Church but it was rejected by Canadian clergy.

Some Catholic bishops have reacted publicly to the Kamloops tragedy in the last week, but go only so far as to express "sadness" and pledge "to do whatever we can to heal that suffering."

Critics say there's one key word missing from those statements: "Sorry."

For its part, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate did offer an apology in 1991 and later paid out money in lawsuits and contributed to the $3 billion in compensation given to 28,000 claimants who were residential school survivors.

But Father Thorson's press release this week made no mention of that and certainly did not echo it. As well, the history of the order summarized on its website makes no mention of its role in running the residential schools.

Writing in the Toronto Star this week, Brandi Morin, an award-winning Indigenous journalist from Alberta, asked of Rome: "Are the atrocities of murdered children not considered important enough to simply acknowledge the church was wrong: To speak on behalf of the monsters who did this and say 'I'm sorry'?"

Part of the Oblate order's 1991 apology reads:

"We apologize for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious imperialism that was part of the mentality with which the peoples of Europe first met the aboriginal peoples …. We were, naively, part of this mentality and were, in fact, often a key player in its implementation.…We recognize that many of the problems that beset Native communities today -- high unemployment, alcoholism, family breakdown, domestic violence, spiralling suicide rates, lack of healthy self-esteem -- are not so much the result of personal failure as they are the result of centuries of systemic imperialism."

The schools were in fact grim prisons where brothers and sisters were separated and forbidden to use their mother tongues or given names. Each was identified by a number. Some testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about being forced to bury their dead classmates in crude, unmarked pit-graves under supervision by clergy.

No causes of death have yet been determined for the 215 Kamloops victims. According to testimony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the main killer was probably disease, particularly tuberculosis. Given their cramped conditions and negligent health practices, residential schools were hotbeds for the spread of TB.

One-third of children who died at a residential school did not have their names recorded by school administrators. One-quarter were marked as deceased without even their gender being noted. Among the 2,800 names on one memorial register are children known to recorded history only as "Alice," "Mckay" or "Elsie." The Department of Indian Affairs stopped recording deaths at residential schools more than a century ago in 1917.

Parents were generally not informed when their children died, nor were the bodies returned to them. One "lucky" mother living near Cornwall, Ont., was informed in 1938 that her son had died in a residential school but her request to have his body shipped home was denied by Indian Affairs. "It is not the practice of the Department to send bodies of Indians by rail excepting under very exceptional circumstances," read the response unearthed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was "an expenditure which the Department does not feel warranted in authorizing."

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, founded in 1816, sent its first missionaries to Canada in 1841 ("oblate" means a person dedicated to God or God's service). Besides its good works, the order has a long history of criminal charges and lawsuits here involving abuse and sex crimes. A class-action lawsuit was launched in Quebec against the order in March 2018  and is still ongoing, having grown to include 190 Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons. Allegations include Oblate attempts to "silence repeated sexual assaults it was well aware of." 

Earlier claims caused the superior of the order, Reverend Jean-Paul Isabelle, to request government financial help in 2000. His order was facing 2,000 lawsuits related to its residential schools. Noting that Saskatchewan alone had 900 claims, with two settling for $100,000 each, Isabelle feared that the order would go bankrupt in Canada. Thankfully, that request for help was not granted.

This sad history of neglect -- on the part of the Catholic Church and governments across Canada -- came into terrible focus again last Thursday in the most graphic way possible. With the assistance of a ground-penetrating radar specialist they had to hire, Indigenous investigators discovered the buried remains of 215 unnamed children.

And Canada -- and its timid, jaded and compliant mainstream media -- became moral pariahs to the world.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source.

Image credit: Thomas_H_foto/Flickr

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