By Frank Moher
Kevin Annett lives in a small white house facing onto a ramshackle street in downtown Nanaimo, BC. The local RCMP detachment, with its lot full of solid, square cop cars, is just around the corner. Inside, on a watery day in mid-January, the living room is lit only by the gray light spilling in through the front picture window. An unlit Christmas tree still occupies the centre of the room.
Annett is as stripped down for efficiency as his home. Brisk but genial, he flicks on a light and sits, looking a bit mournful, for an interview. I ask him about the evidence for unmarked mass graves at the sites of former residential schools in Canada – as many as 28, according to Annett and others.
This is the sort of question that fills his days now.
“At this point, there’s three kinds of evidence,” he says. “There’s a lot of eyewitness accounts which I’ve documented over about 15 years, pointing to graves on the grounds of the former school or an Indian Hospital nearby. Second is documentation where we’ve found letters referring to these gravesites, from Indian Agents, school officials, other people.
“And finally, in a place like Port Alberni, we’ve actually gone out with a forensic team and done a survey of the ground, and they found, some of the people three years ago who did this survey, terrain very similar to what you find in mass grave sites in other parts of the world, like sinkholes and the vegetation and that.
“So there’s pretty conclusive evidence that these kids are buried somewhere around there.”
Those are the sorts of answers that have made Annett a lightning rod for controversy, opprobrium, and admiration across Canada and, increasingly, in Europe. But they pale beside some of his more recent charges. Last year, on his Vancouver Co-op Radio program “Hidden from History,” Annett claimed that Mounties had actually assisted notorious Vancouver serial killer Robert Pickton, not just by neglecting to properly investigate his crimes but by delivering women to his pig farm. His show has since been yanked from the air. More recently, his supporters and he have “summoned” The Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper “to answer charges of conspiring in Crimes against Humanity before an International Tribunal this September in London, England.”
To Annett’s detractors, of course, this is all bad theatre and fabulation. “For years,” wrote BC journalist Terry Glavin in a splenetic 2008 attack in thetyee.ca, “RCMP investigators have been chasing down these stories and they always come up with nothing. But they persist, like the alligators in New York’s sewers.” Others point to Ottawa’s establishment of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to deal with the legacy of Canada’s residential school system. The $60 million, five-year TRC is currently holding a series of “national events” across the country, while also gathering and recording the stories of survivors and their families.
To Annett, the Commission is a whitewash. “The way it’s established according to its mandate, and the way it’s operated in practise over the last number of months in different forums, the whole purpose seems to be to protect the perpetrators and to silence the witnesses. People are not allowed to speak freely, their testimonies aren’t allowed to be used in court, they can’t even name names. There’s all these restrictions put on people, and at the same time there’s all these indemnifications granted to the churches responsible.
“In fact, they’re not going to be held responsible and they’re not going to be prosecuted, even though thousands of children died in these schools.”
Kevin Annett’s long campaign for what he regards as real justice for residential school survivors has been well-documented, by no one more so than Annett himself in his books Love and Death in the Valley and, most recently, Unrepentant. As a young United Church minister in the early ‘90s, he was hired by a small parish in Port Alberni, BC, an isolated logging town 193 km north-west of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Within three years he’d been fired. His employers said it was because he “failed to maintain the peace and welfare of the church”; Annett says it was because he welcomed natives into the congregation, and let them speak freely from the pulpit about murders that had occurred at the local Indian residential school, which the United Church operated for five decades until finally shuttering it in 1973.
Annett, along with his wife and two young daughters, moved to Vancouver, where he enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia and began digging into the microfilm. “I discovered that the entire record of Indian residential schools in British Columbia had been acquired by the UBC library system that very year,” he writes in Unrepentant. In it, he found “verified evidence that the residential schools had been an exercise in deliberate genocide – that over half of all the children in residential schools had died every year from their deliberate exposure to communicable diseases, with the full knowledge and sanction of church and state in Canada.”
But his tenure at UBC ended badly too. His wife left him, taking the kids. The faculty member responsible for handing out graduate funding and teaching assistantships turned out also to be on the executive of the United Church in BC. There would be no money for Annett. Broke, he was forced to abandon his degree — though not his research.
Eventually, the United Church “delisted” him as a minister altogether. Undaunted, he gathered his findings into a cerlox-ringed, self-published book, Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust (recently republished online as Hidden No Longer). Reading it, with its pages upon pages of primary documents, government and church correspondence, and first-person testimonies, it’s hard to discount Annett as a loon, if only because to do so is to discount those testimonies as well.
Witness: “The girls who got pregnant were expelled immediately. Some of them were even found dead on the grounds of the Alberni school. None of us could ever leave the school grounds, and we couldn’t mix with the boys – we couldn’t even hold hands with them – so the staff had to be the ones who fathered those kids.”
Witness: “We were playing soccer in the back field behind the school, where it was really covered in weeds. The ball got kicked among the weeds, and in those weeds I came across the remains of a body, maybe three feet long. It was decomposed and you could see a lot of skeleton . . . . After that, the RCMP came to us and told us not to say anything about what we discovered in the field.”
Witness: “One day in 1946, I was 11, and I went to the place under the stairs where I would go and sit and cry. I heard Mr. Caldwell at the top of the stairs with another little girl, a few years younger than me . . . . Mr. Caldwell was screaming at her, and then I heard this sound, like a kick, and I heard her falling down the stairs. I looked out and saw her facing me, with her eyes open, not moving or breathing. I never saw her again after that.”
Witness: “My sister Maggie was thrown from a three-story window by a nun at the school, and she died.”
Witness: “Kids had TB there and they weren’t sent away for treatment or any help. They just left them in there with us. And I remember one girl, she was just so sick, we didn’t even want to get close to her. But then the nuns told us, you know, ‘You guys get over there and play with her. You’ve got to be around her; you can’t let her be over there by herself.’”
Witness:“I think they were trying to deliberately infect us with tuberculosis, because they always made me sleep in the same bed with girls who had TB. One on each side of me.”
Witness: “Whenever we got sick in that school we were completely ignored. My mother was even forced to sleep in the same bed with kids who were dying of tuberculosis. This was common.”
Either all these people are lying, or Kevin Annett is right.