A rebuttal to Marc Miller on potential unmarked graves
“In on-and-on-and ongoing tweets, Miller misleads the reader on multiple fronts”
According to markers laid down in print and on Twitter by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, we may be watching in real-time a noose tightening around the freedom to question the government’s stated position on unmarked graves in former residential schools.
On Jan 27, Miller tweeted: “The same week as Williams Lake First Nations announced the discovery of 93 potential unmarked graves at the site of the St Joseph’s Mission School, a number of articles have been circulating questioning the nature and validity of these and other recovery efforts.”
A second tweet: “These articles are part of a pattern of denialism and distortion that has coloured the discourse on residential schools in Canada. They are harmful because they attempt to deny survivors and their families the truth, and they distort Canadians’ understanding of our history.”
Finally: “The ghoulish demand to see corpses — one article is unashamedly titled, ‘In Kamloops, not one body has been found’ — is not only highly distasteful but also retraumatizing for survivors and their families.”
By “articles” in “small, online publications,” Miller is certainly referring to Université de Montréal Emeritus professor of history Jacques Rouillard’s named January 11 piece in the Dorchester Review: “In Kamloops, not one body has been found,” but likely as well, amongst other possibilities, to a three-part series on the residential school graves in C2C Journal by retired professor of anthropology Hymie Rubenstein, and articles for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy by retired judge and senior FCPP fellow Brian Giesbrecht. (Giesbrecht and retired political science professor Tom Flanagan already posted a spirited online Dorchester Review riposte to Miller’s accusations.
Charged words like “denialism,” “distortion,” “harmful” and “ghoulish” to describe these commentaries, without any qualification such as “arguably” or “in my opinion” are a clear indication that Miller is condemning the articles — not to mention demonizing their writers — in his official capacity.
Miller doubled down on these allusions in reportage by the Globe and Mail the following day. In her piece, “Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller concerned about ‘concerted’ efforts to deny the experience of residential schools,” Globe reporter Kristy Kirkup writes Miller is speaking out against articles that have been published online that question the validity of findings from Ground Penetrating Radar searches for graves at former Indian residential schools (IRS).
But, to cite one error amongst others in the piece, if that’s what Miller told her in reference to the articles mentioned above, his statement is false. None of the writers questioned the “validity of findings.” They pointed out the limitations of GPR in determining whether “soil disturbances” can be confirmed as graves without excavation. And so did the experts who conducted the GPR investigation.
In on-and-on-and ongoing tweets, Miller misleads the reader on multiple fronts. For one egregious example, Miller alludes to the serious rates of death from disease in the residential schools: an estimated “18 times higher than that of non-indigenous people of the same age,” insinuating the IRS was responsible for the children getting the diseases.
What he does not say is the rate of tuberculosis, the most prevalent of several potentially lethal diseases at the time, was extremely high amongst indigenous people in general, or that, even by his own source’s reckoning, most of the TB-stricken children in the IRS arrived at the schools already infected. (It would be gratifying to see Mr. Miller equally swollen with indignation about the average annual rate of tuberculosis among the Inuit in Canada, presently more than 290 times higher than Canadian-born non-indigenous people, a troubling fact that cannot be imputed to the IRS.)
Miller said distribution of the articles on social media results in a “toxic mix” that goes beyond ignorance into the realm of “deliberate denial” that creates a “very insidious narrative.” Full disclosure: I take these defamatory remarks personally, as I count myself amongst Mr. Miller’s targeted miscreants, having written a recent column in the National Post in which I respectfully cited Rouillard’s Dorchester Review article.
One needn’t be a conspiracy theorist to read into this aggressive throat-clearing a portent of cancel-culture repercussions under consideration in the corridors of power for any journalist, academic or publisher impudent enough to plan yet more polemical dissidence on this topic.
After all, our government has gone to great lengths to officially analogize what should be termed “forced assimilation” to the dominant culture by the IRS with actual genocide. Genocide denial can be a form of hate speech. Indeed, it was for this reason that Germany made it a crime to deny the Holocaust. Is it a stretch to imagine that the government might consider it a positive duty to criminalize — or at least disallow — any further alleged “disinformation,” “denialism” and “insidious narrative[s],” as well as punishing any publication that enables their distribution?
But here’s the thing: Germany not only perpetrated a most unspeakable genocide, it’s thanks to Germans’ penchant for efficiency and thoroughness the evil-doers recorded their crimes in meticulous detail, so that the word “denialism” lives up to its actual meaning: a refusal to acknowledge irrefutable evidence.
The incriminating, but frequently unsupported narratives swirling around the alleged discoveries in Kamloops and elsewhere therefore place the rational observer in a radically different situation from those seeking information about the Holocaust. it is therefore not denialism, or anything close to denialism, to respond to so-far unsupported claims of historical crimes with a request for evidence of the crimes.
In fact, from an academic perspective, it is intellectually frivolous of Mr. Miller to brush aside the need for evidence. Worse, actually, since he represents our federal government. The researchers and journalists who are courteously soliciting evidence for serious allegations are being attacked by Miller with such overt hostility that his accusation of denialism may be construed as a quasi-official form of incitement to actual hatred of those targeted.
There isn’t a single accredited academic in Canada with a specialty in indigenous affairs, and in particular the history of the Indian residential schools, who is unaware of or unwilling to report the known deficits and abuses of the IRS. Examining unverified claims does not translate into an effort to “deny the experience of indigenous children” any more than the expectation of a fair trial for a man accused of rape is a denial of sexual violence as a social problem.
Facts matter. Names attached to facts matter. Details matter. Because lurid, inflammatory accusations fly thick and fast on this emotive issue. For example, as Giesbrecht and Flanagan note in their response to Miller, one chief “accuse[d] priests of throwing babies into incinerators, tossing the dead bodies of children into lakes and rivers, and even calling out over the school’s public address system the names of children whom a priest wanted to sexually assault.” There have been stories of “priests throwing babies in furnaces,” “six-year-olds forced to dig graves,” and “children thrown in pits and rivers.” These are blood libels of the Catholic Church. Yet Mr. Miller thinks it is “disgusting” to interrogate the veracity of such outrageous and unsupported claims.
When allegations are taken as gospel because they arise from a protected class from whom evidence is never requested, even though the allegations impute systemic criminality to entire institutions and their frontline workers, terrible consequences may flow. Only think of what happened in the weeks following the alleged discovery of graves near the Kamloops IRS last spring, accompanied by innuendoes of missing, possibly murdered children, “some as young as three” (even though the IRS did not accept children below the age of six): the burning, vandalism or desecration of 68 churches. One was a Coptic church, completely unrelated to the IRS, built by those fleeing persecution for their faith in Egypt. Yet the government’s response to these hate crimes was a virtual shrug.
Democracy-wise, Mr. Miller is playing a very dangerous game here. Shooting messengers to suppress legitimate messages, and labeling free academic inquiry a heresy will not benefit anyone, least of all reasonable indigenous stakeholders, many of whom are, I daresay, embarrassed by Miller’s frantic, tantrum-style virtue-signaling.
In his political role, Miller’s objective should be to foster reconciliation between indigenous people and other Canadians. The strategy he settled on, speech suppression, could not be more counter-productive to that end. For there can be truth without reconciliation, but there can never be reconciliation without truth.
Barbara Kay is a senior columnist for the Western Standard.