University of Alberta Indigenous association hosts talk on how to confront residential school denialism

Wednesday, January 17th, 2024 2:19pm


Image Caption

Benjamin Kucher, president of the Indigenous Graduate Students’ Association, and Indigenous Studies assistant professor Sean Carleton, co-author of "Debunking the ‘Mass Grave Hoax’: A report on media coverage and residential school denialism in Canada."


Residential school denialism “cherry picks evidence and distorts basic facts and the overall legacy of the Indian Residential School System in order to alleviate settler guilt and block important truth and reconciliation efforts.” —from the study “Debunking the ‘Mass Grave Hoax’
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Benjamin Kucher, president of the Indigenous Graduate Students’ Association (ISGA) at the University of Alberta, says denialism about the harmful legacy of Indian residential schools has picked up. He doesn’t have to go far to illustrate his point.

As the association prepares to host University of Manitoba historian and Indigenous Studies assistant professor Sean Carleton on Thursday to speak to that denialism, Frances Widdowson, who was let go in 2021 by Calgary’s Mount Royal University for voicing residential school denialism, will be giving a “chat” that same day entitled “Academic Freedom Under Threat.”

Kucher, who is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and anthropology student, says any number of emotions—disappointment, disillusionment and disgust—have been voiced by him and other members of the IGSA over the last few weeks about Widdowson’s appearance.

“I'm also frustrated because the university, in all of our meetings and conversations, the university itself has not said anything. They're trying to take a neutral stance, which is understandable given again the tension of academic freedom,” he said.

In a statement to Jan. 16, UofA spokesperson Michael Brown said the university is “committed to free expression in all forms of communication. The Statement on Freedom of Expression at the University of Alberta provides that ‘debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forward are thought by some, or even most, to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or misguided’.”

After the IGSA found out in December that Widdowson would be on the Edmonton campus, the association and the Indigenous Students’ Union decided to fight misinformation with accurate information, Kucher said.

“We reached out to our contacts across campus to let them know that…having somebody who has a rhetoric that continues to direct harm to Indigenous communities, we are going to do something on the same day so that maybe people who want to avoid (Widdowson’s) event but want to find out how they can support, they can come to our event,” he said.

Carleton, who is a settler scholar, has been researching the root of denialism and the role it plays in hampering reconciliation.

He recently co-wrote a study with University of Manitoba research assistant Reid Gerbrandt, also non-Indigenous, on Debunking the ‘Mass Grave Hoax’: A report on media coverage and residential school denialism in Canada.

He also co-wrote an opinion piece with Kisha Supernant entitled “Fighting ‘denialists’ for the truth about unmarked graves and residential schooling.” Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, has been actively involved in ground penetrating radar work at former residential schools.

It was this pre-existing relationship between the UofA and Carleton, and that “he’s respected in the work that he does,” that sparked ISGA to issue the invitation to him, said Kucher.

“He is one of our strongest allies and…he has become one of those people that the community here trusts to lead conversations and that will actually give us the reality of it,” Kucher said.

In the report Debunking the ‘Mass Grave Hoax’, Carleton and Gerbrandt note that since the estimated 215 unmarked graves were announced at Kamloops Indian Residential School in May 2021, “a number of priests, pundits, and politicians have downplayed and questioned the validity of the findings.”

Others contend, write Carleton and Gerbrandt, that a conspiracy is being carried out by the mainstream media, federal government and First Nations to create a “hoax” by misrepresenting the unmarked graves as a “mass grave.”

To that end, the pair reviewed 386 articles written by four mainstream newspapers and the Canadian Press from May 27 to Oct. 15, 2021. They found that only 6.5 per cent of the articles referred to the findings as “mass graves.”

As non-Indigenous scholars, Carleton and Gerbrandt said they were stepping up in response to a call from Kimberly Murray, the independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, to identify and confront residential school denialism in support of survivors, as well as truth and reconciliation efforts.

Denialism, says Kucher, manifests in people denying that there was a genocide, a word used by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the legacy of Indian residential schools.

“Where I sit, what happened with residential schools both at the Canadian law level and at the (United Nations) definition meets the definition of genocide,” he said.

Denialism has an impact on survivors.

“I've seen it over the last few years. It takes a real big toll on their mental health, as well as their physical well-being. But I think what it does is it undermines and delegitimizes their experiences and their stories,” he said. “It discredits Indigenous knowledge systems.”

Denialism, he adds, also impacts the amount of funding or policy changes that could happen “at any given level” for the continued search of residential schools for unmarked graves.

As for the reasons behind denialism, Kucher says it’s “very complicated… I think the best explanation I can give for it is for people who don't want to come to terms with or acknowledge the extent of harm that happened in the past and helped colonize Canada.”

According to Carleton and Gerbrandt’s study, “residential school denialism is not the denial of the residential school system’s existence; nor…(denial) that abuses happened in the schools. Instead, residential school denialism…cherry picks evidence and distorts basic facts and the overall legacy of the Indian Residential School System (IRSS) in order to alleviate settler guilt and block important truth and reconciliation efforts.”

Widdowson, who has publicly rejected the TRC’s conclusion that Canada’s residential school system was “genocidal,” was invited to speak at the university by Kathleen Lowrey, associate professor in anthropology.

According to a news release from a group called the Woke Academy, Lowrey “maintains that academic freedom should protect professors with dissenting positions.”

“Not being able to discuss controversial ideas at a university is not just a threat

to academic institutions.  It also means that democracy will suffer,” said Widdowson in the news release.

“This is an independent event organized by a faculty member. University policy permits members of the university community to book and use university space for independent events,” said Brown.

He adds that the university’s statement on freedom of expression further states that “ideas and opinions presented on our campuses are neither a reflection of, nor an endorsement from, the university unless otherwise stated.”

Last February, a planned lecture by Widdowson at the University of Lethbridge on how “woke-ism” in post-secondary institutions threatens academic freedom, was cancelled amid backlash. Widdowson went to the university anyway to speak, but when hundreds came out to protest, her presentation was moved online.

Now, Widdowson, backed by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, has filed a lawsuit against the University of Lethbridge for cancelling her lecture.

Kucher says he is aware that students are interested in protesting Widdowson’s talk.

“We are offering our event to counter the narrative Widdowson has about residential schools and as an opportunity for the community to get together in support of each other,” he said.

Brown says “various support services” are available to students, staff and faculty to meet their needs as the university “recognizes that some may object to the ideas and opinions that may be expressed at (Widdowson’s) event.”

Widdowson will be speaking in the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy Building from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 18.

Carleton will be speaking in the Fine Arts Building at 3 p.m. on Jan 18, followed by a question-and-answer period. His presentation will be preceded by an Elder prayer and teaching at 2 p.m.

Support Independent Journalism. SUPPORT US!