Residential school deniers show us colonialism is still rampant

We must shut down residential school denialism in all its forms

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an orange every child matters shirt
PHOTO: Prerita Garg / The Peak

By: Olivia Visser, Opinions Editor

Content warning: mentions of unmarked graves, genocide, death, and abuse.

When more than 200 unmarked graves were discovered at Kamloops Residential School in 2021, a movement to uncover the extent of residential school graves gained traction. As evidence pointed to the existence of thousands of unmarked graves, a disturbing number of residential school deniers came out of the woodwork and into the public eye — so much so that if you search “residential school graves” on Google, you’ll be met with misinformation on the first page. 

Popular conservative news outlets like National Post have published multiple articles hinging on denialism, including one titled “Canada slowly acknowledging there never was a ‘mass grave.’” Other fringe publications have claimed there’s “no evidence” supporting unmarked graves, and have even called them a “social panic.” Kimberley Murray, a member of Kanehsatà:ke First Nation and Independent Special Interlocutor, commented last year that the rise in residential school denialism coincides with increased reconciliation efforts. Her office’s interim report from last year mentions that “many international experts point out that denialism is the last step in genocide. The fact that a significant portion of the population disagrees on the nature of residential schools is evidence of colonialism’s lasting legacy.

For the past decade and a half, so-called Canada’s running narrative has been that residential schools were a “dark side” of the country’s history. But these institutions weren’t just a side of Canada’s colonial legacy — they were foundational to it. Residential schools were part of a large-scale forced enfranchisement operation, meaning attendees lost their Indian status and any protections from the Indian Act. The forced assimilation into so-called Canadian culture estranged people from their cultures and families, causing severe intergenerational trauma. Viewing residential schools as a singular historical event is harmful. It minimizes individual experiences, overlooks continuous systemic injustices, and opens up opportunities for denial. 

Residential school denialism isn’t just the idea that residential schools didn’t exist, but rather encompasses talking points that are considered socially acceptable enough for even major newspapers to publish. Frequent attempts to downplay the extent and role of residential schools undermine the collective trauma experienced by over 150,000 children. Arguments that “only” 32% of “school-age status Indian children” attended these institutions diminish how large a number that really is. Similarly, the claim that these mass graves were not “deliberately concealed” or “the result of homicide” overlooks the fact that many Indigenous children still went to these schools to die — be it from neglect, illness, or abuse. When semantics take priority over the voices of survivors, something is deeply wrong. 

There’s no shortage of evidence for how genocidal residential schools were, yet conversations about their legacy were less prominent in popular media before 2021. The surge in discussions about these institutions outside an academic setting is a good thing. However, it’s still not enough to merely recognize that residential schools existed. History is not a fixed point on a graph — the impacts from events continue on. Studies have found that many residential school survivors and their descendants experience poor physical and mental health to this day. Residential schools were often falsely advertised as positive schooling opportunities for Indigenous people, yet many survivors were never taught to read or write, which set them up for difficulty in the workforce. Comments that downplay the government and Catholic church’s responsibility in these schools are steeped in cruelty and misinformation.

For a government that supposedly cares enough about Canadian news content to blacklist it from social media platforms, it’s telling that they’re also willing to fund publications that set reconciliation efforts back decades. Canada’s Department of Justice recently began talks of “legal mechanisms” to tackle residential school denialism, which could potentially include persecution. The European Union has similarly outlawed Holocaust denial, and Canada followed suit in 2022. Criminalizing residential school denialism could be a step in the right direction, especially if it prioritizes news outlets. At the same time, Canadians also have an individual responsibility to address the harms of the system they live under. Michael Eshkawkogan, an Anishnaabe man from Wikwemikong, said, “There is room for conversation with people who downplay or misunderstand what Indigenous people experienced in residential schools.”

When we see denialism in our news feeds, we should use it as an opportunity to uphold truth — reconciliation is meaningless without it. If someone you know makes a claim that minimizes residential schools, call them out. If a credible publication you read downplays any aspect of residential schools, email the editor-in-chief and consider not supporting them. Continual self-education is also important — don’t expect Indigenous people to do that labour for you. Recognizing and dispelling misinformation and denialism means we must all know what truth is. 

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