The Pope Apologized. Some Conservatives Are Denying Residential School Horrors Anyway.

The denial or downplaying of what happened at residential schools works to protect the status quo and amounts to a form of genocide denial that needs to be confronted, experts say.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
CLASSROOM AT THE FORMER KUPER ISLAND INDIAN INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL, WHICH RAN FROM 1890 TO THE 1970S.
CLASSROOM AT THE FORMER KUPER ISLAND INDIAN INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL, WHICH RAN FROM 1890 TO THE 1970S. Photo by INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL HISTORY & DIALOGUE CENTRE VIA NATIONAL CENTRE FOR TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION

After Pope Francis finally issued a long-awaited apology for the role the Catholic Church played in Canada’s abusive residential school system, some prominent conservatives were quick to deny residential school horrors—again.

Conrad Black, a former media baron who was pardoned by Donald Trump, published an op-ed in the Canadian daily the National Post that threw into question the probability of unmarked graves of Indigenous kids. 

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Last May, more than 200 unmarked graves were found at the site of a formal residential school in Kamloops, B.C., which set off a national reckoning. Nearly 2,000 more have been confirmed since and many more are expected. 

But Black said, “Sophisticated audiences… do not accept that thousands of Indigenous children were murdered and secretly buried, as has been alleged.”  

Meanwhile, a retired University of Manitoba professor, Hymie Rubenstein, like many angsty conservatives, continues to publish articles on his Substack, “The REAL Indian Residential Schools Newsletter.”

After Pope Francis apologized, Rubenstein said, “Read and gnash your teeth about the hegemony of emotion over truth” and then pointed out that the apology was issued on April Fool’s Day. 

Well-known conservative figures continue to deny or downplay what happened at residential schools, some even saying the graves are a “hoax” because the bodies haven’t been exhumed. The denial works to protect the status quo and amounts to a form of genocide denialism that needs to be confronted, experts say.

It’s not just fringe figures on the right that are denying these horrors, either. Last month, Tom Flanagan, once an aide to former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wrote that accounts of Canada’s brutal history “are not simply a fraud of hoax,” and referred to them as “bizarre claims.” 

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In December, then federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole was caught on video telling young Conservatives that the purpose of residential schools was simply “to provide education.” He walked back his comments after the video was made public. 

“It can seem like, ‘Oh, a few trolls are saying dumb things on the internet, but denialism is very appealing,” said Sean Carleton, a University of Manitoba professor in Indigenous studies. “Its objective is to keep in place the colonial status quo.”

The Canadian government, along with churches, the majority of them Catholic, ran residential schools to forcibly assimilate 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children—to “kill the Indian in the child,” a famous phrase endorsed by several residential school architects, including Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. Physical and sexual abuses were common, as were malnutrition and disease. Thousands of children died, while others were left with incomprehensible trauma. While the Anglicans and other denominations apologized for their roles, the Catholic Church hadn’t. The pope’s apology came more than 20 years after the last school closed down. 

Denying or misrepresenting the history risks retraumatizing communities, survivors, and their families. Rachel Ann Snow, a practitioner of Indigenous legal traditions and matriarch among her Iyahe Nakoda Sioux people, said this denialism is making it more difficult for survivors to come forward with their stories. 

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Denialists are “completely attacking or undermining the existing hurt. You want to tell your trauma because part of the recovery is to talk and to face those demons,” said Snow, whose father escaped from a residential school and several other relatives were forced to attend them. 

As for those calling unmarked graves a “hoax,” “If some of the denialists understood that it's not just business as usual… They know nothing about Indigenous people or how we feel we need to handle this respectfully,” Snow said. “These children were so little and so desecrated by just being thrown together. There is a whole spiritual threshold and process that has to happen.” 

Daniel Heath Justice, a UBC professor and Cherokee Nation citizen, said denialism is “nothing new” and may be easier than the truth for some people to believe. 

“Even really kind people don’t want to believe that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, respected leaders of their communities, could have been part of a genocidal project. It's an existential issue for a lot of people,” Justice said. 

“The frustrating thing for me is how many bodies do they need to finally believe Indigenous people? My fear is there will never be enough because they don't want to believe Indigenous people.”  

The way forward, according to Justice, is to confront denialism and call it out in our own families. 

Carleton thinks disinformation and misinformation will only get worse as the anniversary in Kamloops approaches, and the pope gets ready to visit Canada, reportedly in late July

“We need to understand denialism as a phenomenon, rather than as an individual expression,” Carleton said. “These arguments need to be challenged and discredited—not just ignored—otherwise it’ll hold up the colonial status quo and anti-Indigenous racism.”

According to Snow, fighting disinformation and misinformation about residential schools is paramount to fighting and recovering from colonialism in Canada. 

“It becomes a sore or a festering wound of Canada and nobody wants to look at that festering wound and say, ‘This is very ugly and it’s been there for a while,” Snow said. “But we need to see the truth in order to heal.”

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