How Museums Can Respond to Residential School Denialism
Updated: October 12, 2023
Content Warning: This post contains content about Residential Schools, denialism, and genocide.
A note on safety, self-care, and self-regulation. The content covered in this post can be triggering and upsetting. As you read and think about this information, try to pay attention to your body’s cues that you might need to come back to this topic another time. Your well-being is important.
If you are an Indian Residential School survivor or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Museums, and all arts, culture, and heritage spaces, have a critical role to play in confronting residential school denialism.
This post is the first of a series of resources the BC Museums Association is developing to support our sector in being prepared to address residential school denialism in all forms – from online comments, to in-person questions, to internal misinformation.
In response to Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc’s announcement of the location of 215 potential unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021, there has been a renewed effort to subvert, manipulate, or outright deny the role of residential schools in the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the lands now known as Canada. Like other forms of mis- and disinformation, residential school denialists seek to undermine society’s understanding of the truth in order to further their own destructive political and social beliefs.
As Dr. Niigaan Sinclair and Dr. Sean Carleton state in their op-ed Residential School Denialism Is on the Rise. What to Know, “Denialism is a barrier to reconciliation… The TRC was clear that reconciliation is not an Indigenous burden but a Canadian responsibility — and an opportunity to build stronger relations with Indigenous peoples.” Non-Indigenous Canadians have a responsibility to confront denialism and as heritage and museum professionals, we have the power to inform public conversations about the past, giving us an obligation to take action.
What is Residential School Denialism?
Residential school denialism, like other forms of genocide denial, can take many forms. Regarding Holocaust denial, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum writes, “The denial of the Holocaust and genocide take many forms, from simply ignoring obvious facts by manipulating the sources, through minimizing the dimensions of genocide, to trivializing and rationalizing genocide by analogy and claiming that it is an acceptable example of the kinds of things that happen in wartime.”
Residential school denialism is defined by scholars Dr. Daniel Heath Justice and Dr. Sean Carleton as “the rejection or misrepresentation of basic facts about residential schooling to undermine truth and reconciliation efforts… in ways that ultimately protect the status quo as well as guilty parties.” (The Walrus)
Similarly, residential school denialism is a spectrum that ranges from minimizing, to doubt, to outright denial. Denialist talking points or misinformation can insidiously influence people who would not identify as a “residential school denier.” For this reason, it can be difficult to quantify the number of deniers in Canada. Since the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015, and more recently in response to increasing public discussions about the destruction caused by residential schools, deniers have been more vocal. Many have spoken up in recent opposition to, and impatience for, the ongoing work of Indigenous communities, the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, and other involved parties completing research work in relation to residential school gravesites.
It is similarly challenging to definitively describe the forms denialism can take. Dr. Justice and Dr. Carleton have written a good resource offering strategies for identifying and confronting denialism. The article cites the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, stating “too many Canadians know little or nothing about the deep historical roots’ of the ongoing issues stemming from settler colonialism generally and residential schooling specifically.” This lack of historical knowledge, combined with the positive images that the church and government have for many Canadians, can often lead to the “positive” framing of residential schools.
As Dr. Justice and Dr. Carleton argue, denialism is not exclusively the outright denial of the existence of residential schools, but rather “the rejection or misrepresentation of basic facts about residential schools.” This can take the form of rhetoric tricks like hyper-focusing on narrow definitions of genocide to contest the idea that genocide is applicable to Canada, drawing false comparisons between boarding schools or orphanages and residential schools, focusing on the “new skills” and “education” offered by residential schools, accusing their opponents of ignoring “all the good things” associated with the schools, suggesting that historians must offer a “balanced” or “apolitical” assessment of residential schools, or attempting to justify residential schools by saying such actions were normal “for the times.” Each of these tactics attempts to subvert the truth and rewrite history to make it more favourable to settler colonialism.
About the Special Interlocutor’s Interim Report
Unmarked gravesites have reignited national awareness of the destruction caused by residential schools and therefore have been a target for denialists. To support Indigenous communities and the government in the work to identify, research and protect unmarked gravesites, the Federal Justice Minister appointed Kimberly Murray as Special Interlocutor in June 2022. Murray’s role is to identify barriers to the work, the legal changes needed and to make recommendations for a new federal legal framework to ensure the respectful and culturally appropriate treatment of unmarked graves and burial sites of children associated with former residential schools (Office of the Special Interlocutor). Her June 2023 Interim Report includes findings on the increase of residential school denialism in Canada and offers recommendations for addressing denialism, including a significant increase in public education.
In the Special Interlocutors interim report, two community assessments of communications and reactions from the public stand out and are relevant to discussions of the damage of denialism: Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and Cowessess First Nation. The report noted that in both communities, information was leaked to the media before a communications plan could be developed and this led to miscommunications in the media that fueled denialism and pain among the communities.
At Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc “Denialists entered the site without permission. Some came in the middle of the night, carrying shovels; they said they wanted to ‘see for themselves’ if children are buried there. Denialists also attacked the community on social media. Kúkpi7 Casimir explained that the hate and racism was so intense that she no longer uses social media without heavy filters. She said that the toxicity of denialism on social media needs more attention.” (OSI Interim Report, pg 98)
Similarly at Cowessess First Nation, Barbara Lavallee, Survivor and Lead Researcher, said that “whenever news about unmarked burials at Indian Residential School sites appear in the media, including relating to Cowessess, communities have been targeted by denialists. She said that her community has learned that the best response to denialism is no response at all.” (OSI Interim Report, pg 100)
Gravesites being found at former residential school locations often fall between conflicting legal protections offered by various levels of government, often due to a lack of existing or accessible records, property sales, and other challenges. In some cases, private security has had to be hired to protect gravesites that are currently being worked in. The fact that residential school gravesites have been visited with the intention to disturb the ground by residential school deniers seeking “the truth” is deeply troubling. Not only is it disrespectful of the cemetery and the ongoing processes of community healing and truth-telling, but it also denies Indigenous people their right to self-determination and the revitalization of Indigenous law, not to mention the basic right to be free of discrimination.
Findings to date on the increase in the violence of denialism
- Denialism is a uniquely non-Indigenous problem; it therefore requires non-Indigenous people to actively work to counter denialism and to create and implement strategies to do so.
- Broad public support for Survivors, families, and communities conducting search and recovery work can be strengthened through public education about the history and ongoing legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada.
- Urgent consideration should be given to legal mechanisms to address denialism, including the implementation of both civil and criminal sanctions.
- Consistent with Article 15 of the Declaration, Canada has an obligation to combat denialism and ensure that education and public information reflects the truth about missing children and unmarked burials. This is important to ensure non-repetition in accordance with the UN’s ‘Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.’ (OSI Interim Report, pg 188)
This report reflects a theme expressed by Dr. Sinclair and Dr. Carleton in their recent publication; that all Canadians have a role to play in standing up to the rising tide of denialism. Indigenous communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast have spent decades telling the truth in courtrooms, in Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimonies, in community documentation, and within their families. They are working to heal and find answers. Combatting residential school denialism is our responsibility as settler Canadians, as heritage workers, and as members of the broader community.
What you can do
Indigenous communities and advocates agree that responding to denialism is the responsibility of all Canadians. Everyone from museum volunteers, to public-facing staff, to managers/boards have tangible actions they can take to address and reject residential school denialism. Here are a few initial steps that arts, culture, and heritage workers/volunteers can take:
Familiarize yourself with common misrepresentations that residential school deniers use to spread misinformation and prepare yourself with the evidence that supports the truth.
We recommend the following introductory resources:
Support Indigenous staff, volunteers, and community members.
It is critical that Indigenous staff, volunteers, and community members are supported in every step of this process and to avoid making assumptions about what support looks like. This involves consulting staff/volunteers/community members about what level of involvement they would like in the development of policies and programs that address residential schools and residential school denialism. Steps can include establishing internal policies for who is responsible for addressing denialism from patrons and community members and who is responsible for responding if these comments escalate, creating protocols for how Indigenous staff/volunteers/community members are supported if they face traumatic experiences in your organization, and creating systems of accountability so that everyone in your organization feels equipped to respond effectively. All of these steps require care, time, and ongoing dialogue and may be complex or uncomfortable. Creating accountable spaces for your volunteers/staff/community members is an investment and cannot be rushed. We recommend the following resources and programs as good starting points for reflecting on how to create supportive and accountable spaces:
Assess how your organization tells the story of local history.
Does your organization address residential schools in its collections, programs, or exhibits? Do your staff and volunteers know what residential school sites and gravesites are in your area and if they are under active investigation? Have you trained public-facing staff and volunteers on how to address the history of residential schools and colonization? Are your board members able to speak about these topics? You can play a role in helping to educate the community about the history of the residential schools of your region.
Audit the language you use when discussing residential schools.
Be mindful of the language you use when discussing sensitive topics, including residential school gravesites. Terms like ‘mass grave’ are targets for denialists to attack in their quest to create skepticism and mistrust of communities and undermine the process of reconciliation.
Review your codes of conduct for volunteers, board members, and staff to ensure that denialist sentiment is outlined as unacceptable with clear consequences.
Please note – if you or your organization are a member of the BC Museums Association, you have already agreed to a code of conduct that “[supports] the goals set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)…[and] encourages members to embrace the ideals of the Rod Naknakim Declaration and incorporate them into their professional practices.”
CMA’s recent Moved to Action report offers resources to reassess governance and HR policies to better align with UNDRIP.
Understand the processes being undertaken to investigate gravesites.
Reading the Interlocutors Interim Report and understanding how the provincial government is assisting communities can lead to helpful discussions about this process with others.
Keep in mind that well-intentioned discussions with persons firmly rooted in denialism will not likely change their minds, and you need to take care of yourself and your colleagues both mentally and physically. Instigating a debate can escalate into defensiveness or aggression, and your personal safety is a priority.
If you have feedback about this article or would like BCMA to develop specific resources, policies, or training materials to support effective responses to residential school denialism, please email us.
Thank you to the BCMA Indigenous Advisory Committee for their feedback and trust in the development of this article!