A century and a half ago Nietzsche wrote in The Use and Abuse of History of “the thoughtless folk who write history in the naïve faith that justice resides in the popular view of their time.”1
There is always more than one view on an historical subject, which is why the B.C. Ministry of Education, in its learning standards for Grade 12 Social Studies, requires teachers to “compare varying perspectives… [and] assess the justification for competing historical accounts after investigating points of contention, reliability of sources, and adequacy of evidence.” The Ministry does not require monochromatic accounts, the inculcation of a particular attitude, the banning of learning resources, or the punishment of iconoclastic teachers. Yet, as Tara Henley writes, teachers must “consent to the idea that a growing list of subjects is off the table, that dialogue itself can be harmful.”2
Henley echoes the post-war words of George Orwell: “At any given moment, there is a sort of all-pervading orthodoxy, a general tacit agreement not to discuss large and uncomfortable facts.”3
Pope Francis warned of “a form of ideological colonisation, one that leaves no room for freedom of expression and is now taking the form of the ‘cancel culture’ invading many circles and public institutions…. This risks canceling identity ‘under the guise of defending diversity,’ a kind of ‘one-track thinking’ is taking shape, one constrained to deny history or, worse yet, to rewrite it in terms of present-day categories.”4
Jonathan Rauch presaged this phenomenon in his 1995 essay, “In Defense of Prejudice”: In the “name of public safety – the safety especially of minorities…the new purism sets out…on a campaign against words, for words are the currency of prejudice, and if prejudice is hurtful then so must be prejudiced words…. Here is the purism that gives ‘political correctness’ its distinctive puffy high-mindedness and authoritarian zeal.”5
The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship published the following “Statement of Concern.”
“A high school that graduates students either fearful of expressing their views or unable to consider and evaluate different understandings does a disservice both to those students and to the wider society in which we all live. It is the position of SAFS that students in the K-12 education system should be taught both the facts and a range of explanations of them, and should not be made simply to hold what administrators or others consider the correct attitudes toward things…. The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) is alarmed to observe a growing tendency within Canadian high schools to limit discussion of controversial or sensitive matters and to require that teachers and students voice only prescribed views on them.”6
There are indeed prescribed views in schools on controversial or sensitive matters, one such matter being the long-ago shuttered Indian residential schools. A middle-school teacher in Abbotsford, B.C., created a contretemps in 2020 when she asked students to conceive of positive things about the schools in a brief homework assignment. The Abbotsford School District placed her under investigation and issued a public statement: “Assignments like this are not acceptable…. We are committed to ensuring that all materials provided to our students are culturally responsive and recognize our responsibility to alert educators to implicit bias, colorblindness, and racism.”7
Teachers in Abbotsford, as elsewhere in Canada, were instructed to inculcate the official narrative on the reported discovery last year of a mass grave at the site of the erstwhile Kamloops Indian Residential School, situated on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc reserve on the north side of the Thompson River opposite the eponymous city. The official narrative, as promulgated by the Canadian Federation of Students, is as follows: “On Thursday, May 27 , the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found buried in an unmarked mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School. These were acts of cultural violence, genocide and colonialism.”8
International media reflected this narrative in their coverage of the story, The Times of London (England) adding that “some of the children were as young as three.”9
A problem for teachers was deciphering fact from fiction – e.g., no child as young as three would have been at the school. The very day The Washington Post printed the news story it ran a correction in its online version which stated: “An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the burial site discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School as a mass grave. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation says the remains were found spread out; it considers it an unmarked, undocumented burial site, not a mass grave. The article has been corrected.”10
However, the article was not fully corrected as no remains were found, only possible burial shafts detected by an archeologist using ground-penetrating radar. The Spectator, the world’s oldest magazine, suggested the news story was apocryphal, writing about it under the title, “The Indigenous mass grave that wasn’t.”11
Former Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson averred:
“The questionable nature of the evidence for assuming that there are 215 or 200 secret burials in an apple orchard – a likely non-existent juvenile rib bone, a report of GPR that will not be released and cannot even be discussed by the SFU archaeology department, and the highly questionable memories of people who have been made aware of the stories being circulated in various forums – makes one wonder why this narrative has gained so much currency in universities and media outlets across the country.”12
The backstory to the Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) begins with the bishop of Marseilles, France, Charles Eugene De Mazenod, who received official approval from Rome in 1826 to initiate a community of “Oblates” (from Latin meaning to “offer oneself”) under the special protection of the Blessed Virgin. Its motto since its earliest days was “to preach the gospel to the poor.”13
The Oblate priests and brothers worked among the Parisian underclasses in revolutionary France. They carried this training with them when sailing to the Pacific Northwest between 1847 and 1857, along with a powerful “sense of mission, which was to convert and civilize,”14
what researcher Kevin Belliveau calls “a little literacy on the cheap together with sufficient inculcation of European ways,”15
as money was scarce. KIRS was opened in 1890, with the Catholic Sisters of Saint Ann looking after the girls. These nuns were part of a Roman Catholic religious community of women founded by Marie-Anne Blondin in Vaudreuil, Québec, in 1850. The first four nuns in British Columbia arrived in Victoria in 1858 to educate “children everywhere for their personal and spiritual development, their career opportunities, and their citizenship outreach.”16
The idea that these teachers murdered Indigenous children and secretly disposed of their bodies at night in a mass grave in an apple orchard goes against the idea that they were devout practitioners of Christian altruism. It is problematic to judge them as murderers, especially when their side of the story is buried with them. And then we come to Kevin Annett, a defrocked United Church minister, who many would say made it his life’s work to tarnish the teachers at KIRS. His self-hired “investigators” were said to have “interviewed thirty-nine former KIRS students who reported tales of torture, rape, imprisonment, forced sterilization, deadly government experiments, ritual Satanic cult killings, child trafficking, secret burials… [including] that Queen Elizabeth kidnapped ten children from the school while on a picnic at Deadman’s Creek in 1964.”17
His conversations with KIRS elders spawned “stories of murders and clandestine burials on a large scale, of babies thrown into furnaces, of children imprisoned in underground chambers and cisterns, hanged in barns, and shocked in electric chairs.”18
Shocking allegations to be sure, but is there any documentary evidence to substantiate them?
Thus far, the answer appears to be no. There is no church or government record of KIRS parents reporting their children missing, and no record of a single murder at the school or any of the other 150 residential schools across Canada in their 150-year existence. As Jacques Rouillard, formerly a professor at l’Université de Montréal, states, “Concrete evidence is needed before the accusations made against the Oblates and the Sisters of St. Ann are inscribed in history. Exhumations have not yet begun and no remains have been found.”19
Nonetheless, the Indigenous perspective in all this cannot be negated, namely that the indoctrination of an essentially captive audience of Indigenous school children into Catholic Church dogma was itself an act of cultural genocide. And herein lies one of the essential difficulties of the matter. Each side may only see the merits of its own position, with little regard for the other’s position. Are both sides guilty of a surface-level conclusion, which the Pope (as quoted above) calls “one-track thinking”?
So, in summoning the question – which side should teachers take? – the answer is to not to take any side, even though it may be politically inexpedient and professionally unsafe to reject the official KIRS narrative. As Northrop Frye wrote about the emotionally charged subject of the Bible, “The academic goal is not to accept or reject it, but to see what the subject means.”20
In other words, the educative purpose of the exercise is to reflect upon the matter more deeply. And isn’t that a teacher’s larger educative goal as well: to stimulate a high school student’s ability to reflect on a topic rather than simply rush to judgment or parrot the popular view? Then students can come to their own conclusions.
- 1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History. Trans. by Adrian Collins, New York: Macmillan, 1949, p. 37.
- 2 Tara Henley, “Why I quit the CBC,” National Post, 4 Jan. 2022. https://nationalpost.com/opinion/tara-henley-why-i-quit-the-cbc.
- 3 George Orwell, 1984. Retrieved 22 March 2022, https://www.quotesmemo.com/quote-given-moment-sort-pervading-orthodoxy-general-tacit-agreement-432519/.
- 4 Pope Francis, “Pope warns ‘cancel culture’ is ‘form of ideological colonization,’ ” Global News, 10 Jan. 2022. https://globalnews.ca/tag/pope-francis-cancel-culture/.
- 5 Jonathan Rauch, “In Defense of Prejudice,” Harper’s Magazine, May 1995. https://harpers.org/archive/1995/05/in-defense-of-prejudice/.
- 6 Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, “Statement: A Disturbing Trend in Canadian High schools,” 21 Sep. 2021. https://safs.ca/a-disturbing-trend-in-canadian-high-schools/
- 7 Simon Little, “ ‘Disgusting’: Abbotsford, B.C. kids told to research positives of residential schools,” Global News, 25 November 2020. https://globalnews.ca/news/7484368/abbotsford-residential-school-positive-homework/.
- 8 Canadian Federation of Students, “Statement on Graves at Kamloops Residential School,” 1 June 2021. https://cfsontario.ca/2021/06/01/statement-on-unmarked-graves-at-kamloops-residential-school/.
- 9 Charlie Mitchell, “Mass grave for indigenous children recalls Canada’s dark past,” The Times, 31 May 2021. Retrieved 14 March 2022. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mass-grave-for-indigenous-children-recalls-canadas-dark-past-vkmgfg6fz.
- 10 Amanda Coletta, “Remains of 215 Indigenous children discovered at former Canadian residential school site,” Washington Post, May 28, 2021. Retrieved 13 March 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/05/28/canada-mass-grave-residential-school/
- 11 Jane Stannus, “The Indigenous mass grave that wasn’t,” The Spectator, 21 January 2022. https://spectatorworld.com/topic/native-mass-grave-wasnt-kamloops-canada/.
- 12 Frances Widdowson, “Billy Remembers: Analyzing the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc/Kamloops Indian Residential School Moral Panic,” The American Conservative, 15 February 2022. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/billy-remembers/.
- 13 Kevin Belliveau, Belief, Backbone, and Bulldozers! Fergus O’Grady’s Vision of Catholic, “Integrated” Education in Northern British Columbia 1956-89. 2001. University of British Columbia, M.A. thesis, p. 5.
- 14 Ibid., pp. 14-16.
- 15 Ibid., p. 22, footnote 22.
- 16 “The Sisters of St. Ann and our involvement with the Kamloops Indian Residential School,” 29 June 2021, Canadian Religious Conference website. https://crc-canada.org/en/ressources/sisters-saint-ann-involvement-kamloops-indian-residential-school/.
- 17 Tom Flanagan and Brian Giesbrecht, “The False Narrative of Residential School Burials,” The Dorchester Review, 1 March 2022.
- 18 Ibid.
- 19 Jacques Rouillard. Interview by Hymie Rubenstein. “Canadian historian: no natives killed in Catholic schools,” The REAL Indian Residential Schools Newsletter, 2 April 2022.
- 20 Northrop Frye, The Great Code. Boston: HarperCollins, 1981, p. 15.