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The Consequences of Teaching Uncomfortable Facts

Long ago, I decided to become a public-school teacher in part for job security – which is ironic in light of my recent dismissal for saying the wrong thing in class about Indian Residential Schools.

When my wife became ill four years ago, we considered downsizing and moving deeper into the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, and at that time I took a job in Abbotsford in the French Immersion Department at WJ Mouat Secondary. I was given a dog’s breakfast of courses, as the parlance goes, but I reached into my hat of pedagogical tricks and pulled out some rabbits.

My career as an educator has spanned four decades and includes a stint as a college instructor and another as principal of a little Canadian school at the foot of the Jura Mountains in Switzerland called Neuchâtel Junior College.

Subsequently, for close to three decades, I worked in the Surrey School District as a teacher and for a time as an athletic director. I began special days for all the students in the district with disabilities, coached six sports teams in one year, put on plays, and ran charitable events. Over time I built an identity as a teacher who gave greatly to his students and school.

One fateful day in late May 2021, as I was teaching Calculus 12 at a high school named for the painter Robert Bateman, news was feverishly spread about the “discovery” of the “remains” of 215 children in a “mass grave” at the site of the long-shuttered Kamloops Indian Residential School. The principal used the PA system to ask teachers to stop their regular instruction to navigate the disturbing news with students.

As I had done a Master’s thesis on Indian Educational Policy under renowned Professor Robert Carney at the University of Alberta, and course work in Indigenous studies as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, I felt informed on the subject of residential schools and spoke about their inception, the dislocation and despair of prairie First Nations (most residential schools being located in the West), the Indian Act (1876) and its authors’ intentions to support Canada’s most marginalized communities, the role of the church as teachers and proselytizers, and the many reports of abuse and neglect.

As it was a math class, some of the students were bored by my history soliloquy, but one girl spoke up to say the schools represented “cultural genocide.” I agreed with her by saying that modern western schooling was mandatory for indigenous children after 1920, and for a time as many as one-third of these children were placed in residential schools (the others attending day school or receiving no education at all). I considered the discussion to be like any other, with some students engaged while others were on their phones or quietly doing equations.

That is until a second student, flush with anger and indignancy, reacted to my comment that children who died tragically while enrolled in residential schools did so mostly from disease. She said the Christian teachers in Kamloops (Oblate priests and brothers as well as nuns from the Catholic order The Sisters of St. Ann) were “murderers who tortured students to death by leaving them out in the snow to die.” I didn’t say anything more, for I feared an argument, and directed students to return to their Calculus work. The class was given a break a few minutes later and unbeknownst to me, the first girl went to a counsellor and complained about me. The counsellor wrote a short note to the principal that stated I had said in class “there was no intent for murder” at the Kamloops school, that “it was not cultural genocide that killed them,” and that students “need to be respectful of Catholic/Anglican church.”

When the principal got the note, he called the district office and before class was over that morning, I had a visit from two male vice-principals who commanded me in front of my students to gather my things and leave the building. While being frog-marched through the corridor I repeatedly asked what I had done wrong, but they wouldn’t answer. When I was close to the front door, I dug in my heels and said I wouldn’t be leaving without hearing from the principal what I had supposedly done wrong. This request was eventually granted, but all the principal would say to me was that it was something I had said. I had a premonition my career was over, and it was. I had committed the cardinal sin of questioning the narrative of mass murder at the Kamloops Indian Residential School on a day when others were wearing orange shirts, wristbands, and/or face paint and appeared either catatonic or purple with rage – as though participating in Big Brother’s two-minute hate session in the novel 1984 – by the widespread report of hundreds of dead students in one school.

On June 1, 2021, I received a Letter of Investigation announcing an indefinite suspension. In it were two allegations. The first was that I had described the Roman goddess Venus (while teaching the etymology of the word vendredi in French class in another school weeks earlier) as a “Greek/Roman god who favoured girls” when what I had written on the board was “Roman goddess of love and beauty.” That allegation was quickly dropped. But the second, about the children in residential schools mostly dying from disease, stuck. I was suspended until the investigator released his report, which was eight months later. To that report, senior management appended a charge of professional misconduct, as the following excerpt from the report shows:

While acting as a Teacher on Call for a Calculus 12 class, Mr. McMurtry…inferring [sic] that many of the deaths were due to disease was in opinion [sic] inflammatory, inappropriate, insensitive, and contrary to the district’s message of condolences and reconciliation.

He left students with the impression some or all of the deaths could be contributed [sic] to ‘natural causes’ and that the deaths could not be called murder.

Both Mr. McMurtry and student accounts had some students passionately saying the deaths were murder, [and] the graves were mass graves.

[We] consider this to be extremely serious professional misconduct.

While on suspension I inquired further into the grave story of murdered children and found I was right. Indeed, there was no discovery at all at the residential school in Kamloops on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc reserve. No graves. No bodies. No murder weapons. No police investigation. No corroborated witness evidence, just hearsay conflating children’s ghost stories with distant memory.

There has been no historical record or documentation from a parent or tribal leader of a missing child. No authenticated names of missing persons. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister unilaterally lowered the national flag at home and abroad for over five months. The majority of federal MPs (there were some members absent by design) in all parties passed a unanimous motion, brought forward by NDP member Leah Gazan on October 27, 2022, to recognize the Indian Residential School program as “genocide.” Yet all that a young Conflict Archeology professor named Sarah Beaulieu (the sole source of the story) had found, using ground-penetrating radar in an abandoned apple orchard on the reserve, were soil anomalies, likely sewage trenches or septic tiles from 1924.

I was called to a meeting with Abbotsford School District trustees on February 21, 2023 because management was recommending that I be terminated. That very day I saw the National Post had featured my story on page one. I was under a deluge of support from many media platforms, especially Rebel News which sent a reporter to cover the disciplinary hearing. I remember telling supporters that my case was strong, the tide in Canada had turned against cancel culture, and there was no way a history teacher should have to predict and repeat his employer’s manipulation of the past.

The Québec historian Marcel Trudel wrote: “There is nothing more dangerous than history used as a defence; or history used for preaching; history used as a tool is no longer history.” I would add that there is nothing more dangerous, in these times, than attempting to teach history factually or truthfully.

The disciplinary meeting was my first time meeting my superintendent as well as the trustees, and it was the first and only time I was heard. As I had written countless letters to my employer and sent articles that had been published in the Canadian Journal of Education, as well as parent/student letters in support of me, and as time was short (20 minutes), I addressed only one of the allegations. I said that when I teach or get something wrong with my students, I later tell them I was wrong. I walk it back. So, I felt they should walk back the accusation of “extremely serious misconduct” for having lied to students that the children in Kamloops were murdered by their teachers.

I am waiting for arbitration, which could take another year or two. As I am 64, time is not on my side.

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