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SECURITY IMPLICATIONS OF THE DISCOVERY OF MASS UNMARKED GRAVES AT INDIGENOUS RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL SITE

Updated: Aug 5

Ian Kemp, NORTHCOM

Week of Monday, July 19, 2021


Sign in front of the former Kamloops British Columbia (BC) residential school where 215 indigenous children were found in unmarked graves[1]


The discovery of mass unmarked graves on former residential school sites leads to possible security implications, namely the razing and vandalism of Catholic churches and anti-indigenous hate. On May 27, 2021, a British Columbia First Nation discovered a mass unmarked grave that held the remains of 215 children on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC.[2] Since the initial discovery, authorities have discovered hundreds more unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada, notably, 751 more bodies, mostly indigenous children, have been discovered in Saskatchewan.[3] Recently, indigenous and nonindigenous relations in Canada have become contentious as the indigenous community advocates for the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation committee to be put into place. The discovery of mass graves has likely resulted in property destruction and hateful rhetoric from many sides of the political spectrum; over 10 Catholic churches in the Calgary area were vandalized and over a dozen churches were also the subject of arson attacks. Furthermore, anti-indigenous sentiments are growing in Canada, which could likely result in white supremacist attacks, especially as calls to “cancel” Canada Day and other national celebrations enrage white nationalists. Despite social unrest and the potential for violence, indigenous leaders and government officials are working to quell the potential of any violent activity.


Over 150,000 indigenous children were mandated to attend church-run, government-funded residential schools between the 1870s and 1997. The purpose of these schools was assimilation into Christian Canadian culture and learning English. There were numerous allegations of abuse, both sexual and non-sexual, against children at these schools.[4] It is highly likely that residential schools played a major role in deteriorating relations between indigenous peoples and the Canadian government. It is also likely that the discovery of mass graves resulted in the resurfacing of historic trauma for both survivors of residential schools and their descendants. This likely has security implications because retraumatizing those with vulnerable mental health could lead them to inflict harm on themselves and others, namely through suicide and domestic violence. Following the discovery of mass graves, the Manitoba Tataskweyak Cree Nation has declared a mental health crisis citing an alarming rise in self-harm incidents.[5] As authorities find more mass graves, it is likely more communities will be faced with similar mental health crises, which could contribute to the rise of alcohol and drug abuse in First Nation communities as a coping mechanism.


The Vatican has yet to offer an apology for the Catholic churches’ role in residential schools.[6] Although indigenous leaders have condemned the defacing and burning of Catholic churches, activists continue to target these churches, likely for retaliatory purposes. As more mass graves are being discovered, it is highly likely that churches across Canada, especially Catholic ones, will continue to be the target of vandalism and arson. The Vatican’s silence on its involvement in the residential school system is likely to further anger indigenous communities and their allies. The Vatican formally apologizing for its role in subjugating indigenous peoples in Canada would likely help to quell tensions and reduce acts of violence because formally apologizing will be seen as a significant step towards reconciliation.


As attention is focused on restoring indigenous-settler relations, some proposals are unpopular among some Canadians. Calls to “cancel” Canada Day, the removal of statues of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, and calls to rename Ryerson University in Toronto are angering some and are likely to contribute to a rise in anti-indigenous sentiments which could result in violence. Before the discovery of mass graves in May 2021, indigenous groups staged the large Wet'suwet'en protests in February 2020.[7] The protests disrupted transportation routes and angered many who saw the protests as too disruptive to their daily lives. Post protests, there was a rise in attacks against indigenous people in Canada. This trend is likely to reemerge as factions of society push for reconciliation efforts that white nationalists are not in support of. Far-right white supremacist ideology has increased in circulation in Canada in 2021 as social media posts in support of those beliefs have surged.[8] Although the rise in anti-racial minority rhetoric is mostly attributed to the frustrations developed during the pandemic, attention to indigenous rights and activism is likely to play a role.


Some indigenous leaders and councils, notably BC’s The Three Fires First Nation Council, are calling on the international community to hold Canada responsible for crimes against humanity including genocide.[9] The security implications of this and similar statements are far-reaching as they could be interpreted as a call to action for some indigenous activists and allies. Additionally, it could place a target on indigenous communities to be on the receiving end of violence from white supremacists and other far-right extremists. Tense political discourse increases the likelihood of security deteriorating by inciting emotion and contributing to polarization.


Non-indigenous politicians are also responsible for contributing to the tense political discourse which could lead to potential instances of violence. Brian Pallister, the Premier of Manitoba, gave a speech on Canada Day where he referenced the holiday and indigenous activists tearing down statues of Queens Elizabeth and Victoria. He stated that “the people who came here to this country before it was a country, and since, didn't come here to destroy anything.”[10] The remarks were quickly dubbed offensive and detrimental to crown-indigenous relations. The remarks may have unintentionally emboldened white nationalists who view the removal of statues unfavorably; a respected government official voicing their displeasure could be seen as a call to action. This could result in protests which have the potential to turn violent and could result in attacks on indigenous people. Additionally, the remarks could stoke tension amongst indigenous activists and indigenous allies resulting in retaliatory attacks against government and Church infrastructure. It is recommended that indigenous community spaces, churches, and government property remain vigilant to guard against physical harm and potential attacks.


The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) Northern Command Team (NORTHCOM) will continue to monitor and analyze the growing tension and acts of violence that stem from the discovery of mass unmarked graves at former residential school sites. Multiple stakeholders including indigenous leaders have called upon the public to cease acts of violence such as the destruction of churches, yet remarks made by politicians such as Premier Pallister make the situation more dynamic. Likely due to an increase in activism, anti-indigenous sentiments have grown and indigenous communities should be vigilant to protect themselves against acts of violence. CTG will keep watch to ensure our audience is informed of all evolving threats.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Kamloops Indian Residential School-Stop of Interest, by TranBC licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Remains of 215 children found buried at former B.C. residential school, First Nation says, CBC, May 2021 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tk-eml%C3%BAps-te-secw%C3%A9pemc-215-children-former-kamloops-indian-residential-school-1.6043778

[3] Hundreds More Unmarked Graves Found at Former Residential School in Canada, The New York Times, June 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/24/world/canada/indigenous-children-graves-saskatchewan-canada.html

[4] Your questions answered about Canada's residential school system, CBC, June 2021 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-residential-schools-kamloops-faq-1.6051632

[5] Tataskweyak Cree Nation declares state of emergency over incidents of self-harm, CBC, July 2021 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/tataskweyak-cree-nation-state-of-emergency-1.6102728

[6] Why the Pope's lack of apology over church's role in residential schools was no surprise to Vatican observers, CBC, June 2021 https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/pope-residential-schools-vatican-observers-1.6057873

[7] Rise in anti-Indigenous racism and violence seen in wake of Wet'suwet'en protests, CBC, February 2020 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/rise-in-anti-indigenous-racism-violence-requires-allyship-accountability-say-victims-advocates-1.5477383

[8] Canadian right-wing extremism increased online during the pandemic, report says, CBC, July 2021 https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/right-wing-extremism-report-1.6108958

[9] Mass impact from discovery of graves, The Toronto Star, May 2021 https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/07/14/mass-impact-from-discovery-of-graves.html

[10] Here's a look at Brian Pallister's full comments on Canada Day statue toppling — and what he's said since, CBC, July 2021 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/brian-pallister-comments-colonization-indigenous-1.6106977

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