AMC calls for criminalization of residential school denialism

By Miranda Leybourne
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Brandon Sun

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is lobbying Ottawa to make denying the history of residential schools in Canada a criminal offence.

Late last month, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) put out a call to Justice Minister Arif Virani and the federal government to move forward on a recommendation made by special interlocutor Kimberly Murray to make residential school denialism punishable under Canadian law.

According to a press release sent out by the AMC on Nov. 28, the legislation would provide a legal mechanism to address the denial of the existence of and harm caused by residential schools, which the association says undermines the experience of First Nations Canadians who went to such institutions.

“This is an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate an honest commitment to reconciliation,” AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in the release. “For this country to move forward equitably and for all people, we all need to be on the right side of history.”

That means universally accepting that the actions taken against Indigenous people through residential schools were “morally and ethically wrong,” Merrick added. Residential school denialism brings continued harm to Indigenous people, she said.

“To deny the existence of these institutions is a form of violence that continues to attempt to remove First Nations people from participating in telling the truth of the history of this country.”

In an emailed reply to the Sun, Jessica Teel, Merrick’s communications co-ordinator, said the AMC has not heard from Virani since issuing the call for Murray’s recommendation to move forward.

For any bill to progress, obtaining Royal Assent is necessary, and this is the outcome Merrick is hoping for, she told the Sun in a follow-up email. Merrick also urged supporters and allies to recognize the ongoing effects of denialism of residential schools on survivors, and the obstacles denialism creates toward the goals of reconciliation.

“Moving forward collectively is crucial, emphasizing the need for a shared understanding of Canada’s true history and acknowledgement of its ongoing impact on the lives of First Nations,” she wrote.

And although the last residential school closed in 1996 – the Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Sask., which was the last federally funded school in Canada – the policies, ideologies, and values that facilitated the existence of residential schools persist beyond the institutions’ closures, Merrick said.

“There must be a collective recognition and acceptance of this reality to embark on a new chapter for this country.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recorded that at least 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended federally funded residential schools from the 1880s

to the late 1990s. Suspected unmarked graves have been uncovered at these sites since May 2021 in Kamloops, B.C. Closer to home, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation has been lobbying all levels of government for access to Turtle Crossing Campground in Brandon to search for ground anomalies. As a result, different challenges have surfaced regarding jurisdictional control, ownership, and land use, Merrick said.

“This, consequently, has heightened denialism, criticism, and hate speech, suggesting that these atrocities never occurred. This undermines the collective efforts of all First Nations and Canadians working to mend our relationship and initiate a new chapter in this country.”

Vince Tacan, the chief of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, located 50 kilometres northwest of Brandon, told the Sun that he has opened a line of communication with Mark Kovatch, the owner of Turtle Crossing Campground, and that he expects progress to be made in gaining more access to the site soon.

“I just want to find a solution, some resolution and something that’s going to accommodate all the people involved, (including) stakeholders,” Tacan said. “So I think that there’s a solution for this. We just have to get down to dialogue and to finding a way forward, and I’m confident we can do that. I think things are lining up.”

Kovatch echoed Tacan’s sentiments in a phone call with the Sun on Thursday afternoon, saying he feels “nothing but joy” to be working with the chief on the matter.

“We had met together on this issue when it first came up five years ago, and had come up with a solution, but unfortunately, that was interrupted,” Kovatch said. “It’s all our history, so we have to work together.”

The Sun contacted Virani’s office but did not receive a reply by press time.