Originally published on humanevents.com on September 11, 2023
Last week I X-posted an article with sobering figures indicating escalating drug-related deaths amongst Indigenous users in the province of British Columbia. The author informs us that “First Nations people are disproportionately represented in overdose deaths: 16 percent of all overdose deaths between January and May 2020… [yet] First Nations represent only 3.3 per cent of the province’s population.” I quoted from the piece: “Imagine. 423 children out of 150,000 Indian Residential School attendees died while at school over the course of 113 years…versus 363 First Nations children who died in one year of illicit drug poisoning in (BC) alone.”
Amongst the immediate replies, this: “Right but the drug use is part of the result from putting generations of Indigenous people through a system (residential schools) intended to eradicate their culture [and] history.” This or a similar reflexive response would have popped up in response to any other well-established, concerning Indigenous-skewed data: alcoholism, prostitution, family dysfunction (including high rates of incest), poverty, domestic violence, incarceration rates or relative illiteracy.
Demonizing the Indian Residential School system (IRS) for its presumed causal link to intergenerational trauma, thence to all present negative outcomes in Indigenous communities, is rarely interrogated, thanks to a collaboration amongst government, media and cultural elites, joined with a cadre of Indigenous political activists and their academic allies. As one, this influential phalanx drives the master “genocide” narrative that gooses social media into near-robotic “right but…” mantras to counter anyone with the temerity to dissent from the IRS=Ultimate Evil equation.
In my experience, rational response to the “right but… residential schools” is futile. I have pointed out, for example, that only one of six status Indigenous children were enrolled in the IRS, the others attending day schools on their reserves or attending no school at all, yet poor social outcomes today afflict the children of IRS attendees and non-attendees alike. The “right but” cohort does not care. The “right but”s are not interested in normal polemical rules, because such rules were designed by “settlers” and cannot relate to the “trauma-informed” assertions of Indigenous spokespeople. (“Trauma-informed” guidelines offered to journalists by communications personnel are often code for “do not expect, or press for, factual or evidence-based responses to your questions.” It seems to work.)
Moral panic surrounding the legacy of IRS reached its peak on May 27, 2021 with a—to be kind—premature and— less kind but true—irresponsible press release. In it, Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation (Kamloops First Nation) announced that Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) had found “confirmation of the remains of 215 children.”
Even though there had been no such “confirmation,” Casimir stated, “We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths.” (Curiously the “knowing” did not extend to the crucial fact that children who died at Kamloops would have been buried, if they could not be returned home, at the large Kamloops Band cemetery, about a mile and a half from the school, and not in the apple orchard on the school premises, where the GPR search was conducted.)
This very much unverified Kamloops “news” immediately metastasized into “mass graves” by a credulous media. Two months later, still without a shred of evidence to back up her claim, at the July 2021 Annual General Assembly of the Assembly of First Nations, Casimir presided over the acceptance of a resolution she had crafted, which stated: “Stand in solidarity with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and all survivors of the Residential School System and their families and assert that the mass grave [my emphasis] discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School reveals Crown conduct reflecting a pattern of genocide against Indigenous Peoples that must be thoroughly examined and considered in terms of Canada’s potential breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law.”
The Kamloops story, and Canada’s high-octane, breast-beating guiltfest over the (so far) imaginary dead children in their (so far) imaginary graves, has been thoroughly combed over by journalists in these pages and elsewhere, including embarrassingly critical international commentary.
For those who prefer to cut to the chase of a commentary-free timeline, and a full, dispassionate chronology of the facts and events surrounding the fiasco, including all-important death records for every residential school in Canada, where four Kamloops deaths are cited (two from disease, two in accidents), they will find satisfaction at Indian Residential School Records (IRSR), published by independent researcher Nina Green. Green’s easily-navigated site is a treasure trove of documents going back to the 19th century.
The documentation on specific children her research turns up often contradicts oral testimonies—say, a death certificate proving a child thought “missing” from a school in fact died at home—so one can understand why IRSR is a thorn in the side of those embracing the “genocide” interpretation of residential-school history.
While Indigenous activists continually promote as fact the theory that child victims of sadistic priests, nuns and Anglican clerics are buried hither and yon throughout Canada (accusations that led to a horrific spree of church burnings and vandalism), they take umbrage when observers express curiosity as to why the police are not called upon to investigate such alleged crime scenes.
Indeed, the Pine Creek IRS in western Manitoba is the only (now formerly) alleged crime scene to which the RCMP were recently invited to conduct a forensic investigation. That is a more accurate description of what, in more colourful language, cabinet minister Marc Miller, referring to researchers’ requests for evidence of alleged mass graves at Kamloops, described on Twitter as a “ghoulish demand to see corpses.”
Had the Pine Creek First Nation bothered to consult the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) register before engaging in the pricey excavation process, they would have found 15 of the alleged 21 missing children’s deaths accounted for in their records, with only one having occurred at the Pine Creek IRS.
So it is no surprise that the excavation beneath a Roman Catholic church turned up no human remains. One might think this would be a reason to rejoice, but, as retired anthropology professor, substack publisher and prolific IRS researcher Hymie Rubenstein points out in commentary on the episode, the result elicited quite an opposite reaction from stakeholders in the genocide narrative: hostility and a doubling down on the certainty that proof of malefaction is just around the next corner, even though “[a]fter decades of fruitless searches or spurious findings, the first named child being looked for by a named relative of the “15,000 to 25,000 … maybe even more” children that Murray Sinclair, former Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, claims are missing, only two have been found, neither of them ever missing.”
Not only has the IRS been formally designated by a House of Commons resolution as a “genocide,” it has become the government’s position that something must be done to curb the harms to Indigenous sensibilities caused by “denialists” – a word coined to describe any historian or journalist who takes issue with any parts of the residential school narrative as told by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and – after Kamloops – expanded to cover anyone who questions the truth of any statement about unmarked graves by any Indigenous claimant.
Indeed, in her interim report, released in June, the (occasionally inflammatory) Indigenous activist Kimberly Murray, appointed special advisor to now former Minister of Justice David Lametti on “Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites Associated with Indian Residential Schools,” identified dissent from Indigenous positions on the IRS as “violence” and “hate,” even if based on documentation like school admission papers, medical records and death certificates.
Murray goes so far as to link the evidence-based work of accredited history scholars with the pathology of Holocaust denial, a particularly egregious insult to the memory of Holocaust victims – documented in their millions – when set against the fact that neither Murray nor anyone else adducing this specious analogy has produced a single documented case of unlawful death of a single named residential school child.
Lametti not only accepted Murray’s activism-based opinions without demur, he committed to respectful consideration of Murray’s recommendation that “urgent consideration should be given to what legal tools exist to address the problem (of denialism), including both civil and criminal sanctions.” Ominous.
Former Minister of Justice David Lametti and Special Interlocutor Kimberly Murray
In the same vein, although it hasn’t yet come to fruition – not for want of volition on Trudeau’s part – an Online Harms Bill, if passed (already very active elsewhere) could render all the columns I have ever written about the residential schools, including this one, a form of “hate speech,” one of the rubrics cited as an “online harm,” and fit only for the oubliette of Canadian history.
That would be a serious annoyance, but not a career death knell for me. I write about many subjects. My writing on this subject is a conduit for the evidence amassed by responsible and trustworthy sources. On this file my sources are a small band of erudite and honorable scholars, now in retirement (nobody in academia can do honest research in this field in the present environment for fear of suffering Frances Widdowson’s fate) for whom such an injustice would be nothing short of a tragedy. They have devoted their entire adult lives to Indigenous history with a specialty in the IRS.
I serve as a board member for the Indian Residential Schools Research Group (IRSRG) website, created last year by several of these concerned Canadians in an effort to archive their own, their colleagues’ and selected others’ informative tugs on the protective narrative blanket in which the subject of the IRS is so jealously swaddled. The IRSRG, in symbiosis with Green’s IRSR, constitutes a nonpareil resource for any journalist or student interested in a holistic view of IRS history.
If the content of IRSRG someday runs afoul of this putative Online Harms legislation, could it then be “disappeared” from the Internet? That would be an inestimable loss to Canadians seeking information that goes beyond the obvious deficits of the IRS system– which no scholar has ever denied, and which all are at pains to acknowledge – but which have never amounted to anything approaching a “genocide.”
Who is served by the persistent, theatrically lachrymose view of Indigenous history in which this nation has for decades been marinating? Certainly not most Canadians, who don’t believe for a minute they or their forebears should be held guilty for abuses at the IRS, but keep their heads below the parapet to stay out of trouble.
And most certainly not Indigenous youth, who are being taught to accept eternal victimhood as their destiny. IRS researcher Michelle Stirling is the author of the piece I referenced in my opening paragraph, titled “Every Living Child Matters Most of All,” in which she asks, “Is the obsession with the past losses of decades ago, is the focus on lonely forgotten graveyards given more attention than devoting love and guidance to young people trying to find their way in life — is that also killing the spirit of the young people of the present?”
Excellent questions – and one that the “right but”s of Canada would do well to consider the next time they unthinkingly take to their keyboards to indulge themselves in the heady, but shallow pleasure of broadcasting their national self-loathing to the world.