Apologetic Backlash

Apologetic Backlash

While the pope stood in front of cameras apologizing for Canada’s residential school system, religious media outlets continued a campaign of denialism.

Trigger warning: this editorial deals with the topic of residential school deaths

In June of 2021 a startling discovery was made that brought (temporary) international focus to the ongoing trauma that faces residential school survivors and their families in North America. In British Columbia, ground penetrating radar (GPR) showed evidence of up to 215 unmarked graves resting below the Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds, where hundreds of Indigenous youth lived away from their communities for months at a time, often after being forcibly removed from their homes when attendance became mandatory under Canadian law.[1] Since this initial discovery many other school sites have been probed by GPR experts, and while this grim reality was still the focus of media attention, there were running totals of the number of gravesites being (re-)discovered in Canada.

Perhaps “startling” is the wrong adjective to use in the opening sentence. I, like many other settler Canadians, was startled by this gruesome reminder of children’s deaths away from home, but this historical truth has been a daily reality to many Indigenous people dealing with the generational fallout from Canada’s project to “get rid of the Indian problem.”[2] Some of these realities were documented in The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and many Canadian artists have tried to evoke the severity of this nation’s institutional racism (including “The Scream,” “Mother’s Grief,” or “The Scoop” by Kent Monkman), but it was this technological illumination of Canada’s colonial project that briefly caught the world’s attention.[3]

Of course, the rapid refresh rate of the contemporary news cycle soon moved on to other atrocities, and it was only a year later when the pope visited Canada that the mainstream media picked up the story of the gravesites again. With the latest barrage of headlines focused on the pope’s apology, I did a cursory online search to see how many gravesites had been discovered in the time since the Kamloops story came to light, and the results that were returned left my mouth agape—not because of the sheer number of disappeared children (which is horrifying), but rather the discovery that a large swath of media outlets were engaging in “gravesite denialism.”

A 3D model of an institutional building sits on a blue background that includes archival photos of nuns dressed in habits.

I don’t want to lend any credence to these (largely Christian) news outlets, but any browser search on the topic of residential school gravesites will return a number of these results, and often high in the list. One outlet went so far as to suggest that in the era of residential schools (which spanned over 110 years) children were dying at a higher rate anyways—a claim that has already been soundly debunked by statisticians who have proven that mortality rates were more than twice as high for Indigenous youth at residential schools than other children at the time.[4] Indeed this grim reality was even admitted to in 1914 by a high level Indian Affairs agent.[5]  Even if one were to discredit the expert opinion of the researchers conducting the radar exploration, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has already created a National Residential School Student Register, which has, from incomplete government and church documentation, confirmed the deaths of at least 3200 children at residential schools.[6] These lazy and dangerous “news” articles seem to prioritize protecting the church over promoting the truth. Moreover, these authors run the risk of re-traumatising people who are trying to heal and disrupt the church’s violent legacy.

Also aiding in the battle to exonerate the church of this systematic (not episodic) series of abuses against Indigenous communities was the Canadian government, who were recently revealed to have freed the Catholic Church of the obligation to raise $25 million to help residential school survivors, a promise that was penned in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.[7] In fact this quiet discharge of the obligations of “the Catholic entities” was written and signed by officials of Stephen Harper’s government, a Prime Minister who seven years earlier had issued his own public relations apology to Residential School Survivors.[8] This revelation and the realization that the church has not met any financial obligations from the settlement tinges the latest promises from the church with an air of insincerity,[9] and continues a long tradition of residential school denialism, where the basic facts about residential schooling are rejected or misrepresented “to undermine truth and reconciliation efforts.”[10]

The ongoing actions of the Catholic Church and its bolsterers in the media lend evidence to suggest that as an organization they do not comprehend the depth of the crimes that they have committed.  I attended a powerful workshop once where, after an extensive history of the colonial project from 1492 onward, the facilitator asked us to imagine the community we lived in, whether that be a neighbourhood or a town, then imagine someone removing most, if not all, of the children from that community for 10 months (though some children were gone for years).[11] How would your community fare? Then imagine the surviving children returning from school, but only speaking a foreign language. Would you be able to cope? And your children? And how would that impact their children?

3D model and collage by the author (2022).


[1] Favrholdt, Ken. “Kamloops History: The dark and difficult legacy of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” Kamloops This Week, 7 Oct 2020, https://www.kamloopsthisweek.com/community/kamloops-history-the-dark-and-difficult-legacy-of-the-kamloops-indian-residential-school-4446093. Accessed October 18, 2022.

[2] Attributed to Duncan Campbell Scott in 1920. Rheault, D’Arcy. “Solving the ‘Indian Problem’ – Assimilation Laws, Practices, and Indian Residential Schools.” Ontario Metis Family Records Centre, 28 March 2022, https://omfrc.org/2017/03/solving-indian-problem-indian-residential-schools/. Accessed September 12, 2022.

[3] For example, https://apnews.com/article/caribbean-canada-7430e40bc8808410db45d08feb8fbf71. Accessed September 12, 2002.

[4] APTN National News. “Number of Indian residential school student deaths may never be known: TRC.” APTN National News, 2 June 2015, https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/number-indian-residential-school-student-deaths-may-never-known-trc/. Accessed October 18, 2022.

[5] In his 1914 essay titled “History of Canadian Indians 1867-1912,” Duncan Campbell Scott writes, “it is quite within the mark to say that fifty percent of the children who passed through these (IR) schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.” In Rheault, Ibid.

[6] https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/number-indian-residential-school-student-deaths-may-never-known-trc/

[7] Taylor, Stephanie. “Deal freeing Catholic entities from $25M payment to survivors released.” Canadian Press, 20 Aug 2022, https://www.guelphtoday.com/local-news/deal-freeing-catholic-entities-from-25m-payment-to-survivors-released-5720855. Accessed Sept. 6, 2022.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sinclair, Niigaan. Winnipeg Free Press. “From optimism to disgust in the time it takes to remove a headdress.” Winnipeg Free Press, 22 Aug 2022, https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/breakingnews/2022/08/22/from-optimism-to-disgust-in-the-time-it-takes-to-remove-a-headdress

[10] Justice, Daniel Heath and Sean Carleton, “Truth before reconciliation: 8 ways to identify and confront Residential School denialism.” August 5, 2021. https://theconversation.com/truth-before-reconciliation-8-ways-to-identify-and-confront-residential-school-denialism-164692. Accessed September 15, 2022.

[11] Miller, JR. “Residential Schools in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 1 June 2021, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools. Accessed October 18, 2022.

Filed Under: Editorials


Curtis Walker is an educator, musician, and arts administrator based in Guelph, Ontario. He holds a Master’s degree in Cultural Theory, where he focused his writing on experimental music. He also spent years as a member of the programming and organizing team for the Send + Receive Festival of Sound in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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