NDP MP calls for hate speech bill to tackle ‘denial’ in dormitories

A growing memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC after the discovery of suspected unmarked graves in May 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC - photo credit)

A growing memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC after the discovery of suspected unmarked graves in May 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC – photo credit)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.

Some Indigenous academics and activists say they have become the target of a growing backlash against reports of hundreds of unmarked graves on former school grounds – and they want Parliament to do something about it.

They say they are being inundated with emails, letters and phone calls from people opposing reports of alleged graves and distorting the histories of the state-funded, church-run institutions that have worked to save more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis assimilate children for more than a century.

They call it “resident school denial” and describe it as an attempt to downplay, twist and dismiss the facts in order to undermine public confidence in the indigenous reconciliation project.

NDP MP Leah Gazan, who got the House of Commons unanimously acknowledging genocide at boarding schools last October, now wants to go a step further by drafting legislation to ban attempts to deny genocide and false claims about it set up boarding schools.

“Denying genocide is a form of hate speech,” said Gazan, who represents the Winnipeg Center horseback riding.

“This type of language is violent and re-traumatizes those who attended boarding school.”

Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Gazan’s proposal is sparking controversy, even among those eager to spread the facts about dormitories. However, Minister for Crown Indigenous Relations Marc Miller said he was interested in reviewing the proposed legislation.

“The denial of residential schools attempts to cover up the horrors that took place in those facilities,” Miller’s office told CBC News.

“It seeks to deny the truth to survivors and their families, and distorts Canadians’ understanding of our shared history.”

“People react … with fear”

From about 1883 to 1997, more than 130 dormitories were operational nationwide. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the federal government had created them with the aim of separating Indigenous children from their families and initiating them into the culture of the dominant European Christian Canadian society. The goal, according to the commission, is to weaken indigenous family ties and cultural ties.

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

Michelle Good, author of the upcoming book Telling the Truth: Seven Talks About Indigenous Life in Canadasaid she believes denial is rooted in Canada’s shifting power dynamic.

“Indigenous peoples are experiencing a very important renaissance, a resurgence,” Good said.

“As we as nations, as peoples, return to our strength, I think the people are reacting with fear.”

Silk Sellinger Photography

Silk Sellinger Photography

Good, who also wrote the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award-winning novel Five Little Indianssaid declaring hate speech would send a strong message that the era of oppression and racism is over.

“My mom watched her friend Lily bleed to death from tuberculosis at Onion Lake Residential School,” said Good, a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, 93 miles northwest of Saskatoon.

“It’s devastating that people are reacting to our lived experience as if it never happened, and our country should be beyond that at this point.”

destroy 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 a fair dialogue with deniers.

She said she receives messages every week from people arguing that shelters were set up with good intentions or that indigenous communities are compiling claims of unmarked graves. Some of these messages, she said, come from missionaries working abroad.

“For people who are doing this as part of their work, their professional life, it’s very disturbing,” Fraser said.

“How is it that we can better educate Canadians on a day-to-day basis so that we don’t have to be at the point where we’re trying to bust more myths about Indigenous Peoples in Canada and we’re really turning our attention to the truth and bring back? and reconciliation part?”

Submitted by Kisha Supernant

Submitted by Kisha Supernant

Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta, said she received an email questioning her own family history after she was born at the former Grouard Indian Residential School in March 2022 Alberta had identified 169 potential graves by ground penetrating radar Northern Alberta.

Supernant, who is Métis, also shared messages with CBC from people threatening to dig up suspicious burial sites.

“I’m already dealing with the emotional strain of spending my time going over potential missing children’s graves, and when that’s then questioned the work becomes a lot more challenging,” she said.

Supernant said extending the Hate Speech Act to include dorm denial is an idea that should be explored, but she doesn’t think it will silence the “deniers”.

“If nations decide to exhume, which some might do, and they find the bodies of children, they still won’t be enough for the deniers,” she said.

“They’ll still find ways to excuse it. Because it’s not really about facts.”

“This is totalitarianism”

Some academics have experienced consequences for their attitudes and statements about boarding schools.

Frances Widdowson was fired as a professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University last year, in part for her criticism of what she called “dominant boarding school narratives.”

A speech she was scheduled to give at the University of Lethbridge last month was also canceled after student protests.

She said using hate speech laws to criminalize some opinions and views about boarding schools would cross a dangerous line.

“That’s totalitarianism,” Widdowson said.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Unlike the House of Commons, Widdowson does not believe the institutions were genocidal. She gained notoriety for saying that the institutions gave tribal children an education that “they would not normally have received”.

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

She said she acknowledges that boarding schools were causing harm and children dying, but questioned the reports of possible unmarked graves on the site of BC’s former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which she says caused “hysteria.”

“The only way to know if there are actual burials there is to do excavation at this site,” Widdowson said.

“I’m totally 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 “denial” with enlightenment

Richard Moon, a law professor at the University of Windsor who specializes in free speech, said any law aimed at denying housing would result in a challenge to the Charter of Rights.

“We want to be very careful in regulating claims about historical events — even if we think those claims are misguided, ignorant or hurtful,” he said.

“The Supreme Court has said that only a very narrow category of extreme speech is caught by hate speech laws, and that is all they should catch to bring regulation of hate speech in line with our obligation to freedom of expression under the Charter. “

Eldon Yellowhorn, professor and chair of the Department of Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, said he knew many skeptics are calling for suspected unmarked graves to be dug up as evidence.

He said that’s controversial because it breaks many taboos about the treatment of the dead in indigenous cultures.

“People like me are working hard to find a solution to this and to strengthen the evidence so that we can have more confidence in what we say,” said Yellowhorn, who is from the Piikani Nation, 200 km south of Calgary.

“You can’t legislate stupidity.”

Submitted by Sean Carleton

Submitted by Sean Carleton

Sean Carleton, an assistant professor in the history and indigenous studies departments at the University of Manitoba, said he also doesn’t think anti-hate speech laws are the best approach.

“It takes away the responsibility of Canadians to challenge the people in their lives,” Carleton said.

“It risks … giving the deniers more of a platform to say, look at the government’s heavy-handed approach. What don’t they want us Canadians to really understand?”

Carleton said he prefers governments, churches, schools and community groups to counter lies and misinformation about boarding schools with education.

“We need to get to the point where denial is seen as people denying gravity or saying the earth is flat,” he said.

A national emergency hotline for Indian residential schools is available to assist 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 counseling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or via online chat.


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