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Missing Children and Burial Information (71-76)

Growing Residential School Denialism Is an Attack on Truth

July 4, 2024

How to identify it, and how to push back against dangerous false claims.

Shoes, clothes, stuffies and other items are on grey stone stairs.
Haida artist Tamara Bell gathered children’s shoes in 2021 to create a memorial at the Vancouver Art Gallery for children who had died at residential schools. Photo by Maddi Dellplain.

The Tyee: The Conversation – In 2021, three short years ago, #CancelCanadaDay was trending on social media following announcements about thousands of unmarked graves at the former sites of Indian Residential Schools across Canada. 

Today, research is expanding on the history of child institutionalization and death at these residential schools. However, there is also a disturbing and harmful movement to deny the truth of residential school history. It is important that we counter these harmful and factually incorrect narratives with truths based on survivors’ experiences.

Since 2015, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has been carrying out critically important knowledge gathering, including accessing previously undisclosed church and government records. 

Today, there are other national mechanisms in place to advance this work, such as the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, or NAC, and the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools. 

There are also new ways to share research and learn about the work that others are doing. These include NAC’s community events, the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor’s national events, the annual Indigenous History and Heritage Gathering and various regional events across the country.

Survivors recount their experiences

Survivors have been at the forefront of these initiatives. For decades — long before national interest or acknowledgment — they have been sharing their oral histories, trying to educate the Canadian public about what happened at residential schools.

We have heard first-hand experiences of trauma, violence, heartache and death at institutions operated by Christian churches and funded by the Canadian government. Survivors have also told incredible stories of strength, adversity and defiance in the face of this genocide.

I sit on the National Advisory Committee. It includes Indigenous studies scholars, archivists, archeologists, forensic scientists, former police investigators, health workers, survivors, Elders and Knowledge Keepers. We are available to provide expertise and guidance to those communities and First Nations wishing to undertake this difficult work. A part of our approach is to ensure that the voices of survivors are always central.

Persistent denialism

Despite all efforts, there are loud and persistent voices trying to turn back the clock to a time when survivors were silenced, and Canada’s history was told through the lens of anti-Indigenous racism and white supremacy. 

People who engage in denialism say things like residential schools “weren’t that bad” or that the extent of student death at these institutions has been “blown out of proportion.” Denialists might argue survivors are lying about the various forms of child abuse at the hands of Christian missionaries and that Indigenous Peoples should be grateful to have received an education. They point to the plight of historical Canadian settlers to undermine this genocide.

Scholars Sean Carleton and Daniel Heath Justice have written of how denialism is about denying what happened at residential schools, but also about rejecting and misrepresenting basic facts. They offer eight ways to identify residential school denialism.

At the core of denialism is deception. People who engage in residential school denialism seek to call irrefutable historical facts into question. They either ignore or soften the actions of both churches and governments in Canadian history.

Worst of all, denialism seeks to silence survivors and discredit their experiences. Survivors are vital members of our community. They are Elders, Knowledge Keepers, leaders and treasured diduus and didiis (grandmothers and grandfathers).

Canada’s History Society and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation co-authored the document “Listening to Survivors” for people to better understand the importance of survivors’ voices and experiences. 

To disregard or undermine survivors’ experiences and knowledge is one example of how denialism persists in contemporary times. It is underpinned by racist beliefs that Indigenous Peoples are inferior, inept, incapable and backwards when compared with white settlers or European societies. This ideology was  the main driver of settler colonialism in Canada and was used to justify the creation of the residential schooling system and other harmful policies.

It is hardly surprising that this practice continues. Academic disciplines, such as history and anthropology and others, have long dismissed the words and experiences of Indigenous Peoples. Archives that house the documents historians rely on exclude the perspectives of the people who experienced this genocide, since records were largely created by settler missionaries, Indian agents, teachers and administrators.

Teaching about residential schools

Although there is now a wide body of public information about residential schools, many people continue to have limited knowledge about them. That provides fertile ground for denialists to spread lies. 

As a university educator, I see these people in the classroom. They are all ages and genders and come from many backgrounds. Some are Indigenous themselves. 

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Indeed, there is a misconception that intergenerational survivors know exactly what our relatives and family members experienced. However, because of residential school trauma, these stories are sometimes not shared, even in our own communities.

Some people did not learn anything about residential schools before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, or received a shallow overview in high school. There are also newcomers to Canada who may have a history of colonialism in their home countries but do not know the Canadian story. 

People who have limited knowledge about the history of residential schools are not denialists, but they can be at risk of accepting denialist propaganda without realizing it.

Quashing denialism

One of the ways that denialism manifests is by calling for Indigenous Peoples to provide proof of genocide at residential schools. For denialists, survivors’ experiences, backed by evidence, are not enough. 

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They want us to exhume bodies. This talking point falsely suggests that we don’t already have enough proof of the genocidal intent and outcomes of the schools. There is the danger that this rhetoric will pressure communities to move at an uncomfortable pace or lead governments to sever support when there aren’t immediate and concrete results.

But even if we exhumed the bodies of our ancestors, would that be enough? Denialists would likely find another way to call Indigenous truths and evidence into question. 

At the NAC, one thing that is clear from our conversations with community is that every aspect of research related to residential schools is complex, multi-faceted and onerous. This work requires a high level of trauma-informed care and consideration for the impacts on survivors and their families.

Families and communities continue to search for answers about the children who never came home. The best way to counter denialism is to support Indigenous Peoples in this difficult and ongoing journey so the truth of residential schools can be told as fully and accurately as possible, and so our communities and families can find healing through this process. 

Crystal Gail Fraser, The Conversation

Crystal Gail Fraser is an associate professor in the department of history, classics and religion and the faculty of Native studies at the University of Alberta. This article was originally published by the Conversation.

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