As Canadians prepare to mark Indigenous Peoples Day on Wednesday (June 21), a new report points to a growing phenomenon: denialism of the residential school system.
This finding appears in the recently released interim report from Kimberly Murray, Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools.
Titled Sacred Responsibility: Searching for the Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, Murray’s report warns of what it calls an “(increase) in the violence of denialism” following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the continuous discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools.
“A core group of Canadians continue to defend the Indian Residential Schools System,” it reads. “Some still deny that children suffered physical, sexual, psychological, cultural, and spiritual abuses, despite the TRC’s indisputable evidence to the contrary. Others try to deny and minimize the destructive impacts of the Indian Residential Schools. They believe Canada’s historical myth that the nation has treated Indigenous Peoples with benevolence and generosity is true.”
Denialism, it reads, is the “last step in genocide” and can fuel disputes between Indigenous communities and governments over various issues jurisdictional control, ownership and land uses.
While it is unclear how many subscribe this form of denalism, it has appeared in British Columbia at the very location that sparked a Canada-wide discussion about the legacy of the residential school system: the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where radar discovered the remains of as many as 215 children forced to attend the school.
According to the report, denialists entered the site without permission, following the initial discovery in 2021 by the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc Nation.
“Some came in the middle of the night, carrying shovels; they said they wanted to ‘see for themselves’ if children are buried there,” it reads.
This physical form of questioning is reminiscent of Fred Leuchter, an American manufacturer of execution equipment. He trespassed on the grounds of the Auschwitz concentration camp as part of his easily disprovable argument that the German-run extermination camp in occupied Poland — a synonym for the Holocaust itself — could not have been used for mass murder of Jews and others during the Second World War.
Within this context, the report recommends the enforcement of laws against members of the public and unethical journalists who trespass on lands subject to search and recovery work or where authorities have discovered potential unmarked burials.
Other denialists attack the credibility of residential school survivors when they discuss missing children, unmarked burials and cemeteries at Indian Residential Schools.
“They claim that (survivors) are lying, exaggerating, or misremembering what happened because such atrocities could never have occurred in Canada. They characterize the existence of unmarked burials to be ‘fake news’, despite the fact that these are well documented in (the final TRC report).”
Denialism also takes place following announcements of “anomalies, reflections or recoveries relating to the existence of unmarked burials” on the grounds of former residential schools. “This violence is prolific and takes place via email, telephone, social media, op-eds and, at times, through in-person confrontations,” it reads.
Within this context, the reports recommends that authorities give “urgent consideration” to “legal mechanisms to address denialism, including the implementation of both civil and criminal sanctions.”
Canada’s criminal code includes language that could lead up to two years in prison for publicly condoning, denying or downplaying the Holocaust and federal justice minister David Lametti said last week that he is “open to all possibilities” when it comes to combatting denialism.
Murray’s report also calls for public education about the history and ongoing legacy of residential schools in Canada and personal responsibility among non-Indigenous Canadians.
“Denialism is a uniquely non-Indigenous problem; it therefore requires non-Indigenous people to actively work to counter denialism and to create and implement strategies to do so,” it reads.
The issue has also caught the attention of Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin in British Columbia.
“We have heard similar concerns from Indigenous communities and take the rise in residential school denialism seriously in recognition of the very real harm that denialism causes to former students and their families,” he said.
Residential school survivors have seen their truths and their experiences of systemic physical, sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse denied for generations, Rankin added.
“The attempts to discredit these findings is deeply disturbing and perpetuates a troubling and persistent pattern of thought that seeks to deny the very real experiences of former students and their families,” Rankin added. “First Nations do not owe anyone the type of evidence being demanded by those questioning the findings of unmarked graves.”
Rankin added that the responsibility of combatting denalism should not rest on the shoulders of survivors alone in referring to the report. “B.C. has made this a key focus of our response to findings at former residential schools.”