Mulling Legal Sanctions Over Arbitrary ‘Residential School Denialism’ Accusations Is Dangerous Territory
Kimberly Murray, an indigenous rights careerist appointed to advise Attorney General David Lametti on missing children, unmarked graves, and burial sites associated with the Indian Residential Schools, has submitted a controversial interim report. Most troubling amongst the recommendations, Murray urges the government to impose legal sanctions on dissenters to the now received wisdom amongst our intelligentsia and political elites that the residential schools were a form of “genocide.” Shockingly, Mr. Lametti declared himself open to the notion of civil or even criminal code options to deal with these alleged “denialists.”
Journalist Terry Glavin—himself targeted as a denialist for his feature article in the National Post last year enumerating a litany of media failures in reporting on the alleged Kamloops “unmarked graves” narrative—wrote a testy response to the report, describing those making accusations of denialism as a “fringe movement.” It may be fringe in the sense that only a core group of activists promote it, but the movement’s success cannot be gainsaid. Just days ago, federal MPs stood for a moment of silence, piously to “mark the discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops,” even though every last one of them knows the word “discovery” is a falsehood, and the “215 children” a factually untethered hypothesis.
Murray’s report also recommended a policy of “data sovereignty,” a more abstract trope, which didn’t receive much attention in the media. But the words rang like a fire bell to objective residential-school researchers. Under the rubric of “data sovereignty,” federal law would place primary historical documentation on all indigenous issues presently held in government, church, and university archives, and open to the public, under the guardianship of unaccountable indigenous bodies with the power to permit—or, “where appropriate”—curtail access to researchers. Needless to say, those considered “denialists” would be shut out. These records are the tools of objective research. Behind the bland mask of “data sovereignty” is the ugly face of identity-politics tyranny.
It’s no accident Murray’s report is titled “Sacred Responsibility.” Identity politics lends special status to suffering of all oppressed groups, but activists demand a uniquely spiritual level of reverence, which requires genuflection to indigenous “ways of knowing.” Stubborn insistence on scientific objectivity is considered something like blasphemy.
A study in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy, titled “The authority of the sacred victim,” examines the relationship between oppressed-group suffering and the sanctity their suffering is accorded by others. The researchers found that “this sacred status [is] socially constructed. Based on the sacred-making (that is, ‘sacrificial’) power of suffering, the sacred status elicits piety, gives its bearers special authority, surrounds them with sanctions, and calls for symbolic sacrificial punishments of the impious.” These words eloquently describe our present unwholesome tension with regard to the moral high ground that is by default ceded to indigenous claimants.
In the case of documents-based research, there is too much already cached for “data sovereignty” to prevail utterly. But the principle of “sacred status,” pitting indigenous culture against modern science, reified in law, imposes greater duress on researchers in other fields. In the United States, for example, forensic anthropology, which is the study of ancient societies through the examination of human remains and artifacts, is in the throes of a struggle for survival as a science-based, rather than an ideology-based, discipline.
Human remains are to forensic anthropologists what documents are to Canadian residential-school researchers. Similarly to what Canadian activists wish to accomplish with a data-sovereignty law, a federal U.S. law mandates the return of bones and other artifacts to the indigenous groups who claim them. The remains must be reburied without scientific study, even if there’s no clear genealogical link between the human bones and the native Americans who presently reside in that region. The case of San José State University (SJSU) professor of physical anthropology Elizabeth Weiss exemplifies the unjust fallout of this mindset.
Weiss’s area of study is bones that are 500–3,000 years old. Without bones, she can’t do research. Following publication of her 2020 book with co-author James Springer, “Repatriation and Erasing the Past,” she was removed as longtime curator of the university’s collection of remains and locked out of the research facility. She was not allowed to study X-rays of the remains or even show a photograph of the boxes in which they are kept (a stipulation by activists grounded in arcane spiritual beliefs). The university’s choice to privilege these anti-science superstitions over Weiss’s academic freedom is based in the “sacred victim” mentality cited above.
In a December 2021 column on Weiss’s Maoist ordeal, then at the height of its surrealist fervour, I elaborated on the cultic extremism this has led to within her discipline. During the 86th annual meeting of the Society for American Archeology in April 2021, Weiss gave a remote talk titled “Has Creationism Crept Back into Archeology?” In the talk, she quite reasonably warned against placing animistic creation myths of the indigenous oral tradition on an equal footing with scientific evidence, such as the exciting revelations currently turning up under the increasingly sophisticated toolbox of paleogeneticism.
But the blowback was intense, and consequential. Canadian indigenous archeologist Kisha Surpernant, who was present at the meeting, claimed that her “very humanity and human rights [were] being questioned” by Weiss’s words. Another archeologist judged Weiss’s paper as “racist, anti-indigenous [expletive] with talking points from white supremacy.” These activists gained the upper hand, and it seemed that Weiss’s downfall might be permanent.
Happily, Weiss’s ordeal is now over, with a settlement to her lawsuit against SJSU concluded just days ago. Even before the settlement was reached, with Pacific Legal Foundation’s support, SJSU had, according to Weiss, “removed some of the most offensive new protocols, such as prohibiting ‘menstruating personnel’ (!) from going near Native American remains; gave me access to the non-Native American skeletal remains collection (i.e. Carthage) after ten months of withholding them; and, enabled me to bring speakers to campus.”
The settlement allows Weiss to spend next year as a fellow with Heterodox Academy’s Center for Academic Pluralism and retire with full benefits in May 2024, plus “emeritus status – something awarded only to retirees.” This is important, as it gives Weiss access to the library (especially the online materials) and retention of a university email address (which is sometimes needed for journal publications).
It is heartening in this science-embattled era to see the victim of an academic witch hunt made professionally whole. I hope, for the sake of residential-school researchers, that Weiss’s outcome will become the rule, and not, as things stand, an exception to it.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.