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NDP MP calls for hate speech law to combat residential school ‘denialism’

February 18, 2023

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller interested in reviewing proposed bill

A growing memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. following the May 2021 discovery of suspected unmarked graves. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

CBC News: Some Indigenous academics and activists say they’ve become the targets of a growing backlash against reports of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites — and they want Parliament to do something about it.

They say they’re being flooded with emails, letters and phone calls from people pushing back against the reports of suspected graves and skewing the history of the government-funded, church-run institutions that worked to assimilate more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children for more than a century. 

They call it “residential school denialism” and describe it as an attempt to downplay, twist and dismiss the facts to undermine public confidence in the Indigenous reconciliation project.

CBC News: The House – What is residential school ‘denialism’ and should it be banned?

NDP MP Leah Gazan, who got the House of Commons last October to unanimously recognize that genocide occurred at residential schools, now wants to take the issue a step further by drafting legislation to outlaw attempts to deny that genocide and make false assertions about residential schools. “Denying genocide is a form of hate speech,” said Gazan, who represents the riding of Winnipeg Centre.  “That kind of speech is violent and re-traumatizes those who attended residential school.”

A woman speaks at a news conference.
Leah Gazan, the NDP MP for Winnipeg Centre, wants to craft legislation to outlaw what she calls “residential school denialism.” (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Gazan’s proposal is causing controversy, even among those who want the facts about residential schools widely known. But the Office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said he would be interested in reviewing the proposed legislation. “Residential school denialism attempts to hide the horrors that took place in these institutions,” Miller’s office told CBC News. “It seeks to deny survivors and their families the truth, and distorts Canadians’ understanding of our shared history.”

‘People are responding … with fear’

More than 130 residential schools operated across the country from roughly 1883 until 1997. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found the federal government created them for the purpose of separating Indigenous children from their families and indoctrinating them into the culture of the dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society. The goal, said the commission, was to weaken Indigenous family ties and cultural linkages.

The commission said that many children at the schools were subjected to physical and sexual abuse. It described conditions at the schools as “institutionalized child neglect.”

Michelle Good, author of the upcoming book Truth Telling: Seven Conversations about Indigenous Life in Canada, said she believes denialism is rooted in Canada’s shifting power dynamics. “Indigenous people are experiencing a very important renaissance, a resurgence,” Good said. “As we are returning to our strength as nations, as peoples, people are responding, I think, with fear.”

Michelle Good is the author of the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award-winning novel Five Little Indians, which is about the residential school experience. (Silk Sellinger Photography)

Good, who also wrote the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award-winning novel Five Little Indians, said declaring denialism hate speech would send a powerful message that the era of oppression and racism is over. “My mother watched her friend Lily haemorrhage to death from tuberculosis at the Onion Lake Residential School,” said Good, a member of Red Pheasant Cree Nation, 153 km northwest of Saskatoon.

“To have people respond to our lived experience as though it never happened is devastating, and our country should be beyond that at this point.”

Busting myths

Crystal Gail Fraser, a Gwichyà Gwich’in assistant professor of history and Native Studies at the University of Alberta, said she would welcome the opportunity to engage in fair dialogue with denialists. She said she receives messages every week from people arguing that residential schools were established with good intentions, or that Indigenous communities are concocting claims about unmarked graves. Some of these messages, she said, come from missionaries working overseas.

“For people who do this as a part of their jobs, their professional lives, that is very disturbing,” Fraser said. “How is it that we can better educate everyday Canadians so we don’t have to be at the point where we’re directing efforts to bust more myths about Indigenous peoples in Canada, and we can really redirect and return our attention to the truth and reconciliation part?”

Métis archeologist Kisha Supernant taking readings using ground-penetrating radar. (Submitted by Kisha Supernant)

Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta, said she received an email challenging her own family history after she identified 169 potential graves through ground-penetrating radar in March 2022 at the former Grouard Indian Residential School in northern Alberta.

Supernant, who is Métis, also shared messages with CBC from people threatening to dig up suspected burial sites.  “I’m already dealing with the emotional toil of spending my time walking over potential graves of children who went missing, and then for that to be called into question makes the work a lot more challenging,” she said.

Supernant said expanding hate speech law to cover residential school denialism is an idea that should be explored but she doesn’t think it will silence the “denialists.” “If nations decide to exhume, which some may, and they do find the bodies of children, they will still not be enough for denialists,” she said. “They’ll still find ways to excuse it. Because it’s not actually about the facts.”

‘This is totalitarianism’ 

Some academics have experienced consequences over their stances and statements on residential schools.

Frances Widdowson was fired last year as a professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, in part for her criticism of what she called “dominant residential school narratives.”  A speech she planned to give at the University of Lethbridge last month was also cancelled after students protested.  She said using hate speech laws to criminalize some opinions and views on residential schools would cross a dangerous line. “This is totalitarianism,” Widdowson said.

The announcement of 200 possible unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C. sent shockwaves around the world.(Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Unlike the House of Commons, Widdowson doesn’t believe the institutions were genocidal. She gained notoriety for saying the institutions gave Indigenous children an education that “normally they wouldn’t have received.”

But Widdowson said she’s not a “denialist.”

She said she acknowledges residential schools caused harm and children died, but takes issue with the reports of possible unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site in B.C., which she said caused “hysteria.” “The only way that you are going to determine whether in fact there are burials there is to do excavations on that site,” Widdowson said. “I’m completely, you know, open to the fact that I could be misguided and wrong. But the answer to that is not to make what I’m saying illegal, which is ridiculous.”

Countering ‘denialism’ with education

Richard Moon, a law professor at the University of Windsor who specializes in freedom of expression, said any law targeting residential school denialism would invite a Charter of Rights challenge. “We want to be very careful about regulating claims about historical events — even if we think those claims are misguided, ignorant or hurtful,” he said. “The Supreme Court has said only a very narrow category of extreme speech is caught by hate speech laws, and that’s all they should catch in order to reconcile the regulation of hate speech with our commitment to freedom of expression under the charter.”

Eldon Yellowhorn, professor and Indigenous Studies department chair at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said he knows that many sceptics are demanding that suspected unmarked graves be dug up for proof. He said that’s controversial because it crosses many taboos about the treatment of the dead in Indigenous cultures.

“People like myself are working hard on finding a resolution to this and to making the evidence stronger so that we can be more confident in the statements that we make,” said Yellowhorn, who is from the Piikani Nation, 200 km south of Calgary. “You can’t legislate stupidity away.”

A man in a suit poses outside for a photo.
Sean Carleton, an assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, wants governments to educate the public about how to confront mistruths about residential schools. (Submitted by Sean Carleton)

Sean Carleton, an assistant professor in the departments of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, said he doesn’t think hate speech legislation would be the best approach either.  “It takes the responsibility out of Canadians’ hands to challenge the people in their lives,” Carleton said. “It risks … giving denialists more of a platform to say, you know, look at the heavy-handed approach of the government. What do they not want us, Canadians, to really understand?”

Carleton said his preference is for governments, churches, schools and community associations to counter lies and misinformation about residential schools with education. “We need to get to that point where denialism is seen as people who deny gravity or say the earth is flat,” he said. 

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter, Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: