Interview with Dr. Scott Hamilton about his work for the TRC on residential school cemeteries

In late May, news broke about a burial area containing the graves of numerous children who died while attending the former Kamloops residential school in British Columbia. This is a heartbreaking reminder of the legacy of Canada’s residential school system and the fact that thousands of children died at schools scattered across the country. These children never got a chance to grow up with their families in their communities. Thousands more Indigenous children who survived the residential schools were traumatized and lost their connection to their cultures because a Eurocentric education was forced upon them. None of these children were in a position to pass on their community’s culture, history, and language to their own children and grandchildren. The goal of the Six Seasons of the Asiniskaw Īthiniwak project is to move forward the ongoing work of reclaiming Indigenous languages, histories, and knowledges among the Asiniskaw Īthiniwak (Rocky Cree). Right now, the Six Seasons project works with former students affected by residential schools. These people have recognized that residential schools have affected their children and grandchildren and they are making an attempt to turn this around so that there is a more positive outlook to the future. As a project of cultural revitalization and cultural reclamation, the Six Seasons project is a response to the harm done by Canada’s residential school system. This work is taking place in the context of the calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Dr. Scott Hamilton, team leader of the Six Seasons Archaeology team, formerly worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the task of identifying residential school cemeteries. In conversation with Six Seasons project manager Dr. Melanie Braith, Hamilton speaks about the research he did for the TRC, and how his findings may be helpful to Indigenous communities now.

MB: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) addressed the question of residential school cemeteries during its mandate. As part of this, you were tasked with writing a report about where these cemeteries could potentially be located. Can you speak more about the work that you did?

SH: I came to the TRC investigations relatively late in the mandate of the commission. A predecessor also addressed the cemeteries, the question of how many children had died and where they were buried. That person was given a really tough job. She had to go through masses of incomplete, scattered, disorganized, and very confusing information. I began by looking at the documentation already collected and realized I’m not going to be able to do anything better or different than she did. And there was no time or money to do direct field research at the sites. But as I was reviewing all those documents, I was left with this sense of frustration because I was not sure where precisely these schools were located. How would I physically find them on the ground if I had the opportunity? And if we couldn’t find the schools, how would we ever find the cemeteries?

MB: It is mind-blowing to me that we actually do not know the exact locations of some schools that were closed a long time ago. We all know the image of the map of Canada with the residential schools on it. So we think we know all the locations.

Scott: Yes. But remember the scale of that map. Each of those dots represents a lot of territory on the ground. Many schools were closed a long time ago. Some were repurposed or rebuilt in other places using the same name. Or one school was closed down and students were moved to a different school with a different name. Sorting out that history of the school system in my own mind occupied a huge amount of time.

MB: How did you go about identifying areas that could be cemeteries without traveling to the places?

The upside of that was my work coincided with the improvement of publicly accessibly satellite imagery for all of Canada. Google Earth coupled with Streetview and other remotely sensed data provided means of virtually driving across the country and looking at localities. I started to clue in to some of the hints where the schools might be in many cases. When used with other available material, for example the written record, the internet searches, the eye-witness accounts and the available church records, I was sometimes able to use the satellite images to parse out meaning from the fragments of written text. I started to pick up standing schools that were abandoned and schools that had been repurposed into other building functions. Then I started to explore the territory around those schools and teach my eye how to detect the evidence of cemeteries. In many cases it is bounded space, either a rectangle or square or some sort of polygon. Enclosed within that space, in some circumstances, you could see rows of linear discolourations on the ground surface. In some cases it was either the heap of earth over the burial shaft or the depression of a burial shaft collapsing down to form a depression. This didn’t work all of the time but sometimes it did.

MB: And you also tried to identify which schools were most likely to have cemeteries.

SH: I started to build dossiers of where the school is located and where candidate cemeteries might be. At some point, I started to see patterns in the data, such as the annual death rates. This gave me a context to interpret, in the sum of probabilities, which of the schools are likely to be associated with fatalities and which of these schools are likely to have cemeteries on the school grounds. Which ones are likely to have children buried within the nearby mission church yard? In which schools were children buried in the Catholic or Protestant sections of municipal cemeteries? I came to the horrifying conclusion quite early on that pretty much every school likely has deaths associated with it and probably multiple deaths because during the heyday of residential school operations, there was a high risk of death. So probably every school sees multiple deaths. Nobody knows how many. That is where we were left. I finished my report about the various circumstances of death and burial, and the kinds of places where we might expect to find cemeteries. I pointed out the schools that are likely associated with mortalities, and I wrote some recommendations about how to further address where the cemeteries might be.

MB: Parts of your report went into the TRC’s final report but overall, your research was not followed up on.

SH: When the Kamloops press release came out, it captured immediate national and international attention. I talked to the former chief counsel of the TRC who talked to Senator Murray Sinclair who talked to Stephanie Scott, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). Shortly after, a PDF of my original report and illustrations was posted on the NCTR’s website. It very quickly started to get consumed and was sort of drawn into the media frenzy of the last week. That frenzy will pass. But there still remains the fundamental challenge of providing community groups, survivors, descendant groups with technical resources and a sense of their range of options. How do we move forward? So the report is now publicly accessible and people can use it if they want to. And that’s all I can ask for. Now where it goes from there, is anyone’s guess.

MB: And you still have documentation from your research that might help communities?

SH: I have many pages of satellite images that represent the work conducted until I ran out of time and had to shift to producing a summary report with example illustrations for the TRC. Those are a really valuable resource for communities and community members who might not be familiar with, for example, where the Elkhorn residential school and cemetery in southwestern Manitoba is specifically located but they know that two great-uncles and a great grandmother attended that place.

MB: In addition to your work with satellite images, in your report you say that the importance of locally held knowledge cannot be overstated.

SH: That’s why I produced all those images. In my mind’s eye I saw them printed in poster-size, mounted on a wall at a community workshop and then survivors and other knowledge holders talking about them, marking them up and adding the comments and locations about where the search needs to be narrowed. Or to correct my errors of interpretation. Or to amplify information about cemeteries that are being missed.

MB: What are some of the challenges?

SH: From my perspective there is no way that there can be a centralized process. How the communities decide they want to proceed is pretty much going to have to drive the process going forward. So we may be looking at a situation where there may be a protocol and procedure for Kamloops, and it might be quite different from the procedure of North Battleford, and yet again different for Shoal Lake. There are many questions: What is public land, and what is private? What is land that has been repurposed for different activities? How do you search for graves of small children where the grave markers from 70 or 80 years ago were essentially decomposed wooden crosses? How does one non-invasively search for cemeteries? How do you define the space that is the cemetery area, and how are you assured that there are no graves beyond that bounded space that are missed and lost again? Some of these schools are in urban environments that have been or are going to get redeveloped. And there is going to be some time in the future, if it hasn’t happened already, where somebody accidentally puts construction equipment into a cemetery that we have lost track of. We have got to get on top of this before that happens. These places must be protected and honoured to remember the children who did not get home.

Dr. Hamilton's complete report for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found here: