It is impossible now for a sentient Canadian to not have at least heard of Truth and Reconciliation. As a popular social mission, it is frequently mentioned in all forms of media and permeates almost every level of jurisdiction and administration in Canada.
All Canadians may have heard of Truth and Reconciliation but not everyone knows what it means. Reconciliation is often an amorphous policy in search of an end it doesn’t know and cannot know because of the highly subjective nature of reconciliation in the context of hard truths. Many will intuit the moral imperative of Truth and Reconciliation from South Africa’s prior experience of reckoning with its legacy of apartheid. What Canada is accused of, though, far surpasses mere apartheid.
Even if Reconciliation is necessarily an act of altruistic groping, the Truth can first be determined; the wounds can be triaged to let healing commence. ‘There can be no reconciliation without the truth’ is the common reminder. To establish the truth of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (IRS) the Harper government formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008 chaired by then Justice Murray Sinclair.
Speaking at the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on Aug. 27, 2010, Sinclair stated that: “For roughly seven generations nearly every Indigenous child in Canada was sent to a residential school. They were taken from their families, tribes and communities, and forced to live in those institutions of assimilation.” Sinclair used language intended to depict Canada as being in breach of Article II(e) of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. This is how assimilation came to be regarded as genocidal
Completed in 2015, the TRC ultimately concluded, however, that the residential schools only constituted a ‘cultural genocide’ in their suppression of indigenous identity, culture and language. As a jurist, Sinclair probably understood that under the legal definition of genocide, genocidal intent has to be proven and this could not be established given the context of an education system that, besides allowing holidays and graduation, presupposed the continued existence of students. Concluding that the IRS was a cultural genocide was a rhetorical evasion of having to meet the difficult legal tests of proving genocide.
Soon after that conclusion, however, there were critics who said that the IRS were an unqualified genocide. On Oct. 27, 2022, those critics were validated in the unanimous passing of a motion in the House of Commons to declare the IRS a genocide in breach of all clauses of Article II of the UN Comvention.
What truths, then, emerged in the intervening years that so incontrovertibly proved that the IRS was a genocide that the House of Commons saw fit to convict Canada without either trial or even debate?
The tipping point was the May 27, 2021 announcement by the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. that the remains of 215 children had been discovered in an old apple orchard near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Presented as shallow, unmarked graves, what the Tk’emlups band had actually found were soil disturbances detected by ground penetrating radar (GPR). The claim of discovering unmarked graves tacitly meant that these were secret burials intended to conceal wrongful deaths. This led to the determination that an actual genocide had occurred. Former residential schools across Canada were subsequently swept with GPR and hundreds more ‘probable unmarked graves’ were found.
The insinuation that hundreds or even thousands of children were killed at former residential schools across Canada posed a problem for the former TRC chairperson. How could the TRC not have known that hundreds or even thousands of children had gone missing from the schools?
The simple answer would be that the TRC did not find any reports from parents claiming that their children had gone missing while attending an IRS. Nor did the TRC hear any credible evidence of staff murdering students. The TRC may have heard stories of surreptitious burials of children at the schools but if there is no corresponding claim of a missing child, what other evidence is there that someone was secretly buried somewhere?
As one would expect after the sensational announcement of murdered children, the RCMP began investigating the Kamloops case. When they tried to interview the lead archaeologist who conducted the GPR survey, Sarah Beaulieu, now retired Senator Murray Sinclair publicly complained that the RCMP “are simply intimidating people rather than helping them.” The RCMP investigation was soon suspended. Two years after the initial announcement at Kamloops, no efforts have yet been made there to excavate any of the suspect sites detected by GPR. There were recent reports of clandestine attempts to manually dig up a suspected grave but these reports have not been substantiated.
Speaking to the CBC’s The Current a few days after the shocking Kamloops announcement, Sinclair remarked that the number of children who died while attending residential school “could be in the 15-25,000 range, and maybe even more. I suspect, quite frankly, that every school had a burial site.”
Sinclair has so far been reluctant to prove those suspicions either way.
There are people who challenge the genocide narrative of the IRS and Sinclair, along with others, has characterized these people as ‘residential school denialists’. One such person is James McCrae who served as a member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly for 13 years sitting often as a cabinet minister and once as the Attorney-General.
McCrae wrote several recent articles that were critical of some of the claims made about the schools. In an Aug. 23, 2022 essay for the Dorchester Review, McCrae accused Sinclair of making false statements about the IRS (cited above).
As to Sinclair’s statement that “nearly every Indigenous child was sent to a residential school,” McCrae pointed out that, at most, only one-third of eligible children ever attended the IRS. About another third attended a federal Day School and the remaining third never attended any school at all. McCrae explained that most attendance was voluntary on the part of parents and the schools were often child welfare shelters by default. If a third of eligible students were able to skip school entirely, how real was forced attendance for every indigenous child?
McCrae also took exception to Sinclair’s estimation of 15-25,000 student deaths, rightly asking how Sinclair arrived at such a high number when both the TRC and its successor, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) produced significantly lower numbers. Was Sinclair contradicting the work done by the TRC to bolster a genocide narrative to which he was already partial?
McCrae has been on the Sinclair family radar screen for sometime. Writing for the Winnipeg Free Press on Dec. 7, 2022, Niigaan Sinclair, son of Murray, accused McCrae and a few others of being “in part, … responsible for the violence against Indigenous people.” Connecting ‘residential school denialism’ to a suspect recently arrested for the alleged serial killings of four Indigenous women, Niigaan Sinclair alluded to McCrae as a malefactor exploiting his political profile to perpetuate hatred against Indigenous people through his recent writing.
Given the occasion of McCrae’s appointment to the King’s Bench Masters Selection Advisory Committee on May 10, 2023 both CBC Manitoba and the Winnipeg Free Press soon ran stories about McCrae being exposed as a residential school denialist, Speaking to the CBC Murray Sinclair was more fulsome in his condemnation of McCrae: “He should never have been considered for such an appointment. He is not worthy of any further public audience.”
“The former senator firmly believes we can’t allow people to deny the validity of findings from the TRC and other inquiries involving Indigenous people.’And Jim McCrae is the worst of them,’ Sinclair said.”
The same CBC story quoted a residential school survivor: “The fact that [McCrae] is downplaying the truth about the unmarked graves, about the abuses in the schools. It’s alarming and it is concerning.”
McCrae was rendered as the personification of residential school denialism. He resigned from his new appointment on May 25.
What are the facts, then? How many children perished at the schools and why? The Indian Residential Schools Research Group (IRSRG) has found records indicating that the total number of student deaths at the schools could be under 500. The TCR itself found records showing over 800 deaths but the IRSRG has reason to believe many names were inadvertently duplicated in record keeping. The discrepancy of the NCTR’s memorial tally of over 4,000 deaths is due to the NCTR permitting families to add names of relatives who attended the schools but who had passed away outside of the schools and often long after leaving the schools. The most glaring example of this gerrymandering is the inclusion of Helen Betty Osborne’s name.
Reached for comment on how he believes there could be 15-25,000 deaths, Sinclair did not respond.
The fact is that the TRC did not find credible evidence of a single act of homicide committed by any staff against any students (there were student homicides committed by other students). Most student deaths at the schools were due to disease with tuberculosis being the primary cause. The claim of unmarked graves has two facets. One is that these are graves in a state of abandonment which became ‘unmarked’ only after their wooden markers disintegrated due to the elements. The other facet is that these are surreptitious burials concealing wrongful deaths. To date there has been no confirmation by excavation that there are any such graves.
Asked why Sinclair and others would exaggerate or fabricate claims of deaths at the schools, McCrae speculated that “the darker the story, the more can be gained in the reconciliation process, if the dark parts are believed. The worse you make the story, the less likely people will question it, given its sensitivity.”
“We always have to be careful, though.” added McCrae. “Given that sensitivity and the bad things that indeed were part of the system. Sticking to the truth is essential.”
Rather than denying the harms of residential schools, McCrae is saying we need to distinguish the actual suffering from the dubious allegations of mass murder. The literal needs to be sifted from the libelous if reconciliation is a sincere effort. Lurid claims of slaughtering innocent children should be challenged on the basis of evidence and not emotion. Proponents of reconciliation risk squandering the public’s empathy on these acrimonious recriminations by bad actors who resist the expected processes of discovery.
In comments Sinclair made to the Winnipeg Free Press on Nov. 28, 2011, he warned: ‘There will be great violence if we do not learn how to fix this.’ Sinclair .. said that the children and grandchildren of the aboriginal students who were forced to attend residential schools are the modern-day victims, over-represented in jails and as victims of crime and suicide.. But he cautioned that one day soon, instead of the violence being directed at themselves or other aboriginal people, the violence will be directed at general society,”(emphasis mine).
Dozens of churches were set on fire after news broke of children’s remains being found in a Kamloops orchard. Statues were vandalized and toppled in orgies of retribution. If craven mercantilism can account for why some people wish to overstate the harms of the schools as genocide, what might explain why the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), sitting in Opposition, would agree to pass a motion declaring Canada guilty of genocide?
As a party insider related: “I think the CPC won’t want to be seen as the party that doesn’t support ‘Indigenous Canadian Issues’. I personally can accept this attitude because the Party needs to attract and retain Native Indian votes to win the next election. The Conservatives voting for this motion is unsettling to me as well but I can accept it because we will probably need Native votes to win in some ridings.”
That is a frank and cynical calculation of choosing to validate a blood libel if it will win votes. It is condescending towards Indigenous Canadians and recklessly indifferent to Canadian civil society when it is pronounced guilty of genocide with neither due process nor punishment. McCrae, who had been a lifelong Tory up until the CPC voted unanimously for the motion, canceled his membership
McCrae lays much of the blame for Canada’s denigration as a genocidal enterprise at the feet of Murray Sinclair. In McCrae’s view, Sinclair has become so venerated as a national spokesperson on residential schools that he is never challenged on his dubious statements.