Canada’s first Indigenous governor general, Mary Simon, has called out the media for promoting “Residential School denialism” while speaking at the fifth National Gathering on Unmarked Burials. Simon addressed the issue of the media attempting to “control the story of Indigenous peoples” and criticized their role in perpetuating a narrative that denies the existence and negative effects of residential schools.
Simon highlighted the importance of recognizing the trauma that Indigenous communities have endured for far too long. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada reported that approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada. Denialism, as Simon pointed out, takes many forms, including attacks online, through the media, and even the desecration of burial sites.
Support for Simon’s stance on Residential School denialism was echoed by the Senate Indigenous peoples committee, which recommended a federal ban on such denialism in a report titled “Honouring The Children Who Never Came Home.” The committee underlined that denialism serves to distract people from the horrific consequences of residential schools and the realities of missing children, burials, and unmarked graves.
The impact of residential schools and the loss experienced by Indigenous families cannot be understated. The federal government settled a $2.8 billion class-action lawsuit in January 2023 for the loss of language and culture caused by residential schools. This settlement was reached with plaintiffs representing 325 First Nations that opted into the suit. Each plaintiff will receive $200,000 to develop funding proposals that reflect the objectives and purposes of the Four Pillars. The Initial Kick-Start Fund of $325 million will be disbursed based on the reviewed proposals.
Recent findings of unmarked graves at former residential school sites have further amplified the urgency for reconciliation. Saskatchewan’s English River First Nation reported the alleged discovery of 79 children and 14 infants in unmarked graves at the site of the defunct Beauval Indian Residential School. These findings, obtained using ground-penetrating radar, prompted ERFN Chief Jenny Wolverine to emphasize that schools should come with playgrounds, not graveyards. However, it is important to note that ongoing investigations have yet to find human remains at any suspected unmarked grave.
The discovery of alleged remains belonging to 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops in May 2021 shocked the nation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged these unmarked graves and expressed his horror at the news. The revelation sparked nationwide outrage and led to a renewed focus on Truth and Reconciliation, but it also sparked acts of vandalism and the burning of over 60 churches across Canada.
These incidents highlight the deep pain and anger that many Indigenous communities continue to experience. It is crucial that Canadians come together to address these issues and have open discussions about the impact of colonization and residential schools on Indigenous peoples. While some have expressed frustration or anger, it is important to recognize the underlying trauma and work towards healing and understanding.
Despite interim reports claiming that “denialists” attempted to dig up alleged remains at various sites, investigations have not found any evidence to support these claims. The federal government has allocated significant funding for searching sites, creating a National Residential Schools Student Death Register, and establishing a Residential Schools Missing Children Community Support Fund. These initiatives demonstrate a commitment to uncovering the truth and supporting Indigenous communities in their journey towards healing.
It is clear that there is still much work to be done in achieving true reconciliation in Canada. Governor General Mary Simon’s comments draw attention to the role of the media in shaping the narrative surrounding Indigenous peoples and the need to confront Residential School denialism. By acknowledging the painful history of residential schools and working towards understanding and reconciliation, Canadians can contribute to building a more inclusive and just society for all.