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Fake news, and the “Canadian Mass Grave” story

In Ireland, we are no strangers to the idea of the media jumping on a story, dispensing with any detailed investigation, and rushing straight to a national conversation about what lessons can be learned. We have seen it repeatedly: We saw it with the Carlow School where teachers were falsely accused of objectifying their students, and denounced. It turned out to be false. We saw it this week with the Ashling Murphy story where, before anybody was charged, we jumped right into a national discussion about the general badness of men towards women. We have seen it with the Savita Halapanavver case, when the medical findings that her death was a result of hospital mismanagement of sepsis have been almost universally discarded in favour of the national myth that her death was a result of the abortion laws that applied at the time.

It is, unfortunately, a general truth that in journalism, on select topics, many reporters jump straight to “the larger truth” rather than just “the truth”. In such cases, the “larger truth” is almost always that society itself is to blame, and that some urgent and long desired progressive political reform must be implemented to “stop things like this from happening ever again”. It is a potent, effective, and utterly shameless campaigning tool.

And it is not reserved to Ireland.

Last year, readers may recall, there was international outrage about the reported discovery of the bodies of 215 bodies of children, buried in the grounds of a catholic residential school in Canada. Here is how CNN covered it at the time:

 “This past weekend, with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist, the stark truth of the preliminary findings came to light — the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” said Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community.

“To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” she said in the statement.

There is no room for ambiguity, you’ll note, in either that quote, or in the full report. Here in Ireland, there was no room for ambiguity, either. Here is the Irish Times, in a piece headlined (naturally enough) “In Canada, like Ireland, Church and State evade accountability”:

An unmarked mass grave of an estimated 215 children has been found at the former site of the Catholic-run Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. The bodies represent just a small number of the First Nations children removed from their parents and communities who never returned home.

Here, at least, we got the gracious acknowledgment that the number of dead children was an estimate. But that was simply a passing caveat, before the author got into her main point, which was about the historic evil of church and state on either side of the Atlantic.

Why are we writing about this now, almost nine months later? Well, the answer is very simple: Because at the site in Kamloops, where these bodies were “found”, not one body has been found.

Not one.

Here is Professor Jacques Rouillard, Professor of History at the University of Montreal, writing about the facts of the matter in the most recent edition of the Dorchester Review, one of Canada’s most respected academic publications:

The “discovery” was first reported last May 27 by Tk’emlúps te secwépemc First Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir after an anthropologist, Sarah Beaulieu, used ground-penetrating radar in a search for the remains of children alleged by some to be buried there. She is a young anthropologist, an instructor in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of the Fraser Valley since 2018. Her preliminary report is actually based on depressions and abnormalities in the soil of an apple orchard near the school – not on exhumed remains.

The professor goes on to note that there has not been one confirmed case of a child’s body being recovered from the site, and that all academic literature suggests that the use of ground-penetrating radar to identify grave sites is highly unreliable.

In other words, when CNN (and many others) said that the remains of 215 children had been “confirmed”, they were reporting the dictionary definition of fake news. And when the Irish Times published a column saying that “a mass grave had been found” they were reporting an unconfirmed claim as fact.

Professor Rouillard’s article is worth reading in full. It does not exclude the possibility (indeed the probability) that the site will contain the remains of some children. But it does strongly suggest that the idea that 215 children were buried in an “unmarked mass grave” is absolute nonsense.

The sad thing, of course, is that this story will never, truly, be debunked. It has now entered the realm of many stories of its kind: An apocryphal tale about the cruelty of our past, which it suits many people to believe. It fits in nicely, after all, with cultural perceptions about the evils of nuns, and Governments, and harsh eras of religious repression. The basic fact is that it doesn’t matter if the story is true: It feels true, and in cases like this, that is all the media really needs.

But it really does – really really does – make it hard to swallow lectures from the great and the good of journalism about the threat of fake news. The media produces and circulates almost as much of it as anybody else, after all.

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