The Residential Schools and Unmarked Graves: Why is Open Inquiry Perilous?

September 2021

On July 10, 2021, I participated in a Society for Academic Freedom Scholarship and Frontier Centre for Public Policy sponsored event entitled “Can We Discuss Those Unmarked Graves?” The event featured Brian Giesbrecht (a retired Manitoba court judge) and Rodney Clifton (a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba) and was moderated by Paul Viminitz (from the University of Lethbridge).

While Giesbrecht and Clifton’s presentations largely concerned the sensationalism and distortions surrounding the “discovery” of cemeteries that often were just forgotten (they noted that the marking of graves, in fact, was not an indigenous tradition), my presentation was about how and why examining this subject has become perilous. Opposition to open and honest discussion of the topic has become a direct threat to academic freedom and open inquiry at universities because of “indigenization” and “decolonization” initiatives. While academic freedom is still enshrined in many collective agreements, faculty members are increasingly expected to defer to the demands of indigenous organizations as to how they want historical events to be represented.

This censoriousness does not pertain just to the unmarked graves in particular, or indigenous residential schools in general. It is linked to wider developments in the academy, which concern how universities have been captured by what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay call “reified postmodernism”. According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, postmodernism was originally a relativist ideology that focused on subjectivity in opposition to objectivity so as to contest the Enlightenment’s promotion of science, reason, and the pursuit of a universal truth. This disarmed the academy and prevented it from opposing the insertion of the politics of identity and entitlement into a wide variety of academic programs (especially ethnic, women’s, queer, and disability studies). The promotion of identities perceived to be oppressed in these areas, Pluckrose and Lindsay point out, meant that “deconstructive” postmodernism was now being “applied”.

While the politics of identity and entitlement (“applied postmodernism”) was just one ideology among many in the academy in the 1990s, it gradually became “reified” in the next decade. This meant that the assertions of identity politics were being “made real” in the academy. Instead of accepting that trans women were adult human males who thought of themselves as women, for example, reified postmodernism (also referred to colloquially as “wokeism”) demanded that all must pretend that these men were literally women. This position is now being enforced by university diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) offices and human rights legislation. Replacing references to biological sex with the category of “gender”, the dictate that one must use the “gender affirming” pronouns made up by trans activists, and faculty association requirements to state one’s pronouns before speaking at meetings (recently proposed at my institution) all are examples of reified postmodernism’s takeover.

In the case of the residential schools, the identity that must be “made real” is the notion of being an indigenous residential school (genocide) “survivor”; this is why there were so many uncritically accepted references to “mass graves”, Canadian “concentration camps”, and “murdered” children. If one questions the claim that the residential schools were genocidal, or argues that they provided educational benefits to students, it is implied that one is tantamount to being a Holocaust denier. And just as teaching that the Holocaust did not occur would likely result in dismissal for academic incompetence, some professors now claim that one should be fired for challenging the residential schools’ “genocide” narrative.

This can be seen at my own institution (Mount Royal University), where a motion was passed at General Faculties Council in September 2020 asserting that “Mount Royal University acknowledges the genocide done to indigenous peoples by colonization and the trauma inflicted by the residential school system”. When I asked how this would impact dissenters, one of the initiators of the motion insisted that opposition was permissible but “one dissenting voice does not change those values”. Then, not even one year later, on June 14, 2021, this professor posted the following (now deleted) comment:

“I support academic freedom, of course, but universities must absolutely fire racists who deny the real harm of residential schools for indigenous peoples, arguing that the RS [residential schools] somehow carried benefits. Kowtowing to them undermines everything a university does for decolonization.”

This creeping totalitarianism provides a perfect example of how applied postmodernism becomes reified. Originally, it is asserted that a statement is “symbolic” or “aspirational” and this does not prevent disputational arguments from being made. Then demands that the indigenous residential school “survivor” identity be “made real” results in the Politically Correct Totalitarian position that dissenting positions are oppressive and make indigenous people feel “unsafe”. The university’s widespread promotion of “decolonization” and “reconciliation” eventually morphs into demands for censorship, as some indigenous students, faculty, and staff claim that hearing oppositional views creates a “culture of fear” and challenging the “genocide” narrative “conveys a tolerance for violent and lethal behaviour”. Shutting down certain forms of expression, we are told, is necessary for the marginalized to develop the confidence to bring about their emancipation. The result is to transform the university from a place of truth-seeking discussion to a forum for advocacy.

Although this explains in general how open and honest discussion is becoming more perilous in the academy, there is also a reason why indigenous issues, in particular, are difficult to analyze. This is due to the economic interests that constrain discussion of indigenous-non-indigenous relations. As I explained in detail in my book Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency, reified postmodernism is particularly pronounced in the study of indigenous policy because it reinforces the rent-seeking strategies of indigenous organizations.

I have referred to these rent-seeking strategies as the political economy of neotribal rentierism. The theory concerns how indigenous groups have been incorporated into late capitalism, whereby their isolation from the working class resulted in what Erik Olin Wright called non-exploitative oppression. This means that it was indigenous lands, not indigenous labour, that was sought after in the colonization of what is now Canada. As indigenous groups did not have the capacity to withdraw their labour to make political demands, they were reliant on “brokers” to plead their case. This has meant that, since the 1950s, lawyers and consultants have been paid to negotiate transfers either in the form of royalties, funding for “culturally sensitive services”, or compensation for wrongs that are claimed to have occurred in the past. These transfers reinforced indigenous groups’ isolation, both economically and physically, from the rest of the Canadian economy and society.

Reified postmodernism’s demand to “make real” the indigenous residential school “survivor” identity taps into the third form of neotribal rentierism – compensation for past wrongs. This is because genocide is the most significant crime that can be perpetrated by a state, and therefore the acceptance of its existence means that more compensation can be extracted for redress. The increasing acceptance of the accusation of genocide, in fact, has jump-started a case by lawyers to take Canada to the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity”, as well as the Assembly of First Nations’ demands for reparations. It also has meant that hundreds of millions of dollars are now being allocated to academics and consultants to locate and commemorate the unmarked graves. Furthermore, another multi-million round of soul searching – following from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry – is being proposed. Pressure for these rent-seeking initiatives would be diminished if the claims about the unmarked graves were critically analyzed.

While the censoriousness that surrounds the discussions of the unmarked graves is destructive for academic freedom and open inquiry, a more disturbing consequence is that it prevents a complete understanding of indigenous circumstances from emerging. Because of the accusations of “genocide” that have emerged with the “discovery” of the unmarked graves, the actual problems facing marginalized indigenous peoples are not being addressed. We are, once again, heading down a path where funds will be dispersed to alleviate problems that are not caused by a lack of money. Much indigenous deprivation is due to being economically isolated and receiving substandard educational services. Portraying the residential schools as “genocidal” continues to disguise the serious educational challenges that face any state trying to incorporate pre-literate and animistic tribal cultures into a modern economy and society.