Kamloops: A Journalistic Fiasco


On last May 19, Montreal daily La Presse came back on the story of the infamous « Kamloops 215 unmarked graves, » dating back to 2021, framing it as a major « misunderstanding »[1]. The Kamloops story is in fact indicative of a journalistic fiasco of the highest order, the consequences of which over the past three years have been far-reaching. Journalist Jonathan Kay was right when he wrote: « The faulty coverage has been a systematic failure across the entire Canadian journalistic landscape […] No single media outlet had any interest in walking back its previously published misinformation, because each could evade criticism simply by pointing to the (equally erroneous) work of everyone else »[2]. The Kamloops story is about journalists who did their job very, very badly, and editors who didn’t do theirs at all.

Let’s recall the basic facts, often ignored by journalists, to the point where we sometimes wonder if they even know them. In May 2021, scientist Sarah Beaulieu surveyed an old orchard adjacent to a former residential school in Kamloops with ground-penetrating radar (GPR). She detected soil « anomalies » that could indicate the presence of 215 graves, a number later reduced to 200. GPR cannot detect the presence of human remains. Beaulieu said: « These [200 anomalies, or] targets of interest are ‘probable burials’ as they demonstrate multiple GPR characteristics of burials. Only forensic investigation (excavation) will be able to conclusively determine this« . On the following July 15, with the controversy in full swing, « Beaulieu cautioned that definitive statements about specific numbers, or even conclusions about the existence of any burials, could not be made until excavations were undertaken »[3]. Over the course of the 20th century, the land on which the said orchard stands has been the subject of numerous works, including for irrigation, and the soil has been disturbed on several occasions since 1917. These works have resulted in multiple excavations. No burials have ever been discovered.

Based on nothing more than the above, on May 27, 2021, Tk’emlúps te secwépemc chief Rosanne Casimir told a press conference that the remains of 215 former Kamloops residential school students had been discovered. She even knew their ages. According to her, some were as young as three, a bit of “information” Radio-Canada presented as established fact[4].

The media machine, which we are told runs on reliable, verified information unlike that found on social media (blah, blah, blah), immediately went into full steam. Not only did the self-described « authenticators of truth » quickly « confirmed » that the human remains of 215 children had been discovered, but they quickly went from “anomalies/potential graves” to “unmarked graves” to “mass graves” to “murder” to “genocide and crimes against humanity.” Within days, the story sounded as if hundreds, then thousands of children had been killed and buried in the dead of night. One commentator asked, “Is this Canada’s Holocaust moment?”[5] Indeed, Kamloops had become the new Babi Yar.

La Presse canadienne and Canadian Press (« Les restes de 215 enfants retrouvés en Colombie-Britannique », La Presse, May 28, 2021 – uncorrected; « Remains of 215 children found buried at site of former B.C. residential school », National Post, May 27, 2021 – uncorrected), Radio-Canada (« Pensionnats autochtones : découverte « déchirante » des restes de 215 enfants », May 28, 2021, uncorrected), the Globe and Mail (« Discovery of children’s remains at Kamloops residential school ‘stark example of violence’ inflicted upon Indigenous peoples », May 28, 2021, uncorrected), the Toronto Star (« Mass impact from discovery of graves », May 31, 2021, the expression « mass grave » has been removed) and many others (including CBC’s The Fifth Estate[6]) sent the whole country into a frenzy, and at Justin Trudeau’s initiative, flags were flown at half-mast for an unprecedented five months. He didn’t know how to find an excuse to raise them again.

We are told journalism is about verifying facts. Obviously, as I demonstrated in my books, it often boils down to “repeat-and-distort.” The BBC, The Guardian, NPR, Reuters and a host of others entered the fray and made this a global story (Washington Post: « Remains of 215 Indigenous children discovered at former Canadian residential school site », May 28, 2021, corrected[7]). And the story received the ultimate blessing of the powerful New York Times, which maintains to this day the existence of a mass grave in Kamloops: « ‘Horrible History’: Mass Grave of Indigenous Children Reported in Canada », as is headlined a text signed by Canadian journalist Ian Austen.

Here are the facts. To date, no graves or human remains have been found in the Kamloops orchard; no excavations have been carried out; the scientist behind the study says she is unable to confirm the existence of graves; and to my knowledge, Dr. Beaulieu’s report has not been made public.

Unfortunately, anyone who read the May 19 articles in La Presse has been left with the impression that the existence of the orchard burials is an established fact, confirmed by GPR. The journalist wrote (my translation): « In May 2021, the announcement of the discovery of 215 anonymous Aboriginal children’s graves stunned Canada — and the world. Three years later, no bodies have yet been exhumed [… ] », « many expected excavation work to get under way quickly, since the graves had been detected by ground-penetrating radar » and « in May 2022, the National Post exposed how several initial news reports had mistakenly referred to mass graves, instead of unmarked graves, often in old, abandoned cemeteries, » all under a misleading headline: « Evidence of a serious crime. »[8] We have seen better attempts at setting the record straight. An update is welcome, but it’s surprising that it took three years and isn’t clearer and more assertive.

After three years, impressions have left their mark and are firmly entrenched. The damage is done. No one will ever be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and most media don’t even try. La Presse’s half-baked, ambiguous report missed the mark.

In May 2022, journalist Terry Glavin had covered the issue in the National Post with a far more exhaustive and well-researched report. It’s worth taking the time to read: « The year of the graves: How the world’s media got it wrong on residential school graves. »[9] But Glavin wasn’t very successful. A year later, in 2023, the entire Canadian Parliament observed a minute’s silence to mark “the discovery of the remains of 215 children.” As I’ve written elsewhere, false stories die hard. Once they’ve been repeated everywhere, they’ve become indestructible.

It’s possible that graves will one day be found in the orchard, or elsewhere. No one says otherwise. And it seems established that many old cemeteries, neglected and then abandoned, have seen their monuments, often made of wood, disappear. Nevertheless, for the moment, the facts are that no bodies have been found in Kamloops, and above all, no trace of a mass grave. And even if graves are found, the cause and circumstances of death will have to be established, given tuberculosis and smallpox, in particular, were at the time wreaking havoc. For the moment, it seems that no excavation is planned, which is a little puzzling. If, as is being loudly proclaimed, crimes have been committed, shouldn’t we be investigating?

Last January, I read Grave Error[10], a book on residential schools which, according to some, shouldn’t be read, as it goes against the grain by proposing a critical, but fact-based, reasonably balanced approach. One can only hope the next step isn’t a call to burn such “disturbing” books. In any case, I think Grave Error is well worth a read. So far, I’ve noted the grimaces about it, but seen no sign of a compelling rebuttal.

This debate could become outdated. Trudeau the Second and his followers are watching. Books like Grave Error, or Glavin’s article, could, if they had their way, become criminal. Did you think you were living in the age of Habermas, the age of rational discussion in the public square? Think again: this could be the return of the Inquisition, Savonarola and Torquemada. Before throwing tomatoes or accusations at anyone, I suggest to first read Glavin. Neither he nor anyone else denies the abuse, mistreatment or even crimes associated with the residential school system. That’s not the point. In matters like this, journalists are supposed to be the ones who keep a level head. If they can’t, if it’s too complex for them, all is lost.

© Michel Lemay

[1] Hachey, I. Les preuves d’un crime gravissime et Creuser ou ne pas creuser, La Presse, May 19, 2024.

[2] Kay, J. A Media-Fuelled Social Panic Over Unmarked Graves, Quillette, 22 juillet 2022. See also Grave Error (see note 10), p. 158-9.

[3] Grave Error, p. 134.

[4] Matte-Bergeron, T. and Bois, G., Pensionnats autochtones : découverte « déchirante » des restes de 215 enfants, Radio-Canada, May 28, 2021.

[5] Kool, R. Comment: Is this Canada’s Holocaust moment? Times Colonist, June 12, 2021.

[6] The Reckoning: Secrets unearthed by Tk’emlúps te secwépemc, January 13, 2022.

[7] Correction now appended to the article: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the burial site discovered at Kamloops Indian Residential School as a mass grave. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation says the remains were found spread out; it considers it an unmarked, undocumented burial site, not a mass grave. The article has been corrected.

[8] « En mai 2021, l’annonce de la découverte de 215 sépultures anonymes d’enfants autochtones a sidéré le Canada — et le monde. Trois ans plus tard, aucun corps n’a encore été exhumé […] », « beaucoup s’attendaient à ce que les travaux d’excavation s’enclenchent rapidement, puisque les sépultures avaient été détectées par des radars à pénétration de sol », « en mai 2022, le National Post a exposé la façon dont plusieurs reportages initiaux s’étaient trompés en parlant de fosses communes, alors qu’il s’agissait de tombes non marquées, souvent dans d’anciens cimetières abandonnés », le tout sous le titre « les preuves d’un crime gravissime ».

[9] Glavin, T. The year of the graves: How the world’s media got it wrong on residential school graves, National Post, May 26, 2022.

[10] Champion, C. P. et Flanagan, T., Grave Error, How the Media Misled Us (and the truth about residential schools), True North and Dorchester Books, 2023.