There are no Indian Residential School denialists, so why criminalize them?
By Rod Clifton
Originally published in the Western Standard, December 19, 2023, and The Kindersley Clarion, December 20, 2023
In a recent Canadian Press story, Kimberly Murray, the government’s special interlocutor on unmarked graves of missing Indigenous children from residential schools, is reported as saying: “We could make it an offence to incite hate and promote hate against Indigenous people by denying that residential schools happened or downplaying what happened in the institutions.”
Special Interlocutor Kimberly Murray, formerly Executive Director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Worryingly, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears sympathetic to the special interlocutor’s call to action.
Ms Murray also says that Indigenous leaders across the country support her call for legislation. In one example, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) asked the Justice Minister, Arif Virani, to amend the criminal code to criminalize denialism.
AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said enacting such a law would provide “an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate an honest commitment to reconciliation, for to deny the existence of these institutions is a form of violence.”
AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick
A particularly contentious part of the current Indian Residential School (IRS) narrative is the focus on missing and even murdered IRS students. This focus became a national disgrace at the end of May 2021 when the Kamloops First Nation in British Columbia announced that stories from Knowledge Keepers and evidence from ground-penetrating radar (GPR) had led to the “discovery” of the graves of 215 children in the schoolyard of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Since that announcement, First Nations across the country have discovered many more ‘graves,’ also relying on Knowledge Keepers stories and GPR evidence. But so far, no bodies of IRS students have been exhumed from the schoolyards, even though the Chief TRC Commissioner, Justice Murray Sinclair, told CBC Radio host Matt Galloway a couple of years ago that as many as 15,000 to 25,000 Indian Residential School students are missing.
Surprisingly, these claims are not included in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report. In fact, only one story of a murdered child is reported in the TRC Report, and it is the unverified story told by Doris Young about witnessing the murder of a child at the Anglican-run Elkhorn Indian Residential School in Manitoba.
The Commission reported this alleged murder but did not investigate the claim. Indeed, the Commission spent $60 million over six years and did not report any evidence, other than Doris Young’s claim, of the murder of Indigenous children at residential schools.
What does this mean for criminalizing denialism?
There are at least three problems with potential legislation to take such a drastic step. First, Canada already has legislation on hate speech and so new legislation is unnecessary.
Second, the definition of “denialism,” as reported above, is so vague that it would be almost impossible to convict anyone.
Finally, and most importantly, from what can be gathered from both Ms Murray’s interim report and recent news items, virtually no Canadians deny that Indian Residential Schools existed or that some children were harmed at those schools.
What Canadians seem to disagree on is the need for evidence that supports claims of residential school students being murdered, and their bodies unceremoniously buried in unmarked graves in IRS schoolyards.
Those who would side with Ms Murray are those who believe ‘hearsay’ evidence from Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and shadows on GPR screens are adequate to prove the claim.
On the other side, the so-called deniers reason that forensic evidence from exhumed bodies is needed.
Surely the Canadian law enforcement and justice system is the proper agency to conduct an impartial investigation of any murder claims, and, if evidence is obtained, to criminally charge those Indigenous and non-Indigenous IRS employees responsible and to report their names and crimes if they are deceased.
Surely Canadians would support such an impartial investigation leading to possible criminal charges. Until that happens, there is no reason to demonize the so-called ‘deniers’. And without an independent investigation along with a public report, a fair and just reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians cannot be achieved.
Indeed, many people are wondering why such a rigorous, systematic, investigation has not yet been conducted. It is the time to settle this issue so that both sides of the issue — indeed all Canadians — can move on from being pitted against each other over an issue that can be easily resolved with an independent investigation conducted by competent justice officials.
Who can deny the importance of such a step?