“But they had good intentions”: Indian Residential Schools Denialism 

“Denialism is violence. Denialism is calculated. Denialism is harmful. Denialism is hate,” says Kimberly Murray, the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites Associated with Indian Residential Schools.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015 stated that reconciliation cannot be achieved without truth. The Commission identified a significant challenge in that a considerable number of Canadians lack knowledge about the profound historical origins of the persistent issues arising from settler colonialism, particularly the history of residential schools.

What is Indian residential school denialism?

As defined by scholars Daniel Heath Justice and Sean Carleton, residential school denialism is “the rejection or misrepresentation of basic facts about residential schooling to undermine truth and reconciliation efforts . . . in ways that ultimately protect the status quo as well as guilty parties.” It does not necessarily entail an outright denial of the existence of the Indian residential school system.

In general, the denial of the impact of residential schools is a tactic employed to manipulate and weaken the truth of the Indigenous Peoples’ traumatic encounters during Canadian colonialism, with the aim of preserving the existing state of affairs.

What does Indian residential school denialism sound like?

Dr. Daniel Heath Justice and Dr. Sean Carleton from the University of British Columbia have shared the following list of common tactics used by denialists to discredit the extensive evidence of widespread, systemic, and ongoing violence within the IRS system.1

  1. Genocide: the destruction of a nation or ethnic group, either wholly or partially. Some people strategically narrow the definition of genocide to events similar to the Holocaust, but this is not accurate. The TRC’s final report shows that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples fits the definition of genocide, specifically through the residential school system, which was a form of “cultural genocide.” Some people argue that “cultural” genocide is not genocide, but this is incorrect. The Canadian Historical Association has clarified that genocide is the correct term to use in the Canadian context. Despite this, some deny that genocide applies to Canada.
  2. School: A place where children are taught a variety of academic subjects. Denialists frequently compare boarding schools and residential schools, and the two are vastly different. Canadian policy resulted in Indigenous children being taken away from their families and cultures for over 100 years and multiple generations. They were placed in institutions where many suffered abuse and malnourishment. They were also given substandard education focused on manual labor and servitude. Meanwhile, the government systematically dispossessed Indigenous lands and resources.
  3. “But they learned new skills”: These skills were taught through religious indoctrination enforced by corporal punishment and various forms of abuse. They were also taught cultural and bodily shame and were alienated from their families and disconnected from subsistence economies. Additionally, they were given substandard orientation for wage labor due to the lack of meaningful academic or effective vocational instruction.
  4. “They had good intentions”: Denialists justify the maintenance of a genocidal school system for over a century by evoking the “good intentions” of some school officials, despite the numerous bodies found and testimonies of lifelong traumas from extensive abuse by church officials and teachers.
  5. “You’re ignoring all the good things”: Denialists try to justify residential schooling by highlighting any positive experiences that made life bearable despite the staff-inflicted cruelties, deprivations, and separations from loved ones. They focus on individualized recollections to discredit those who expose the overall genocidal effects of the IRS system. The Anglican Church of Canada, which operated 30% of residential schools, has acknowledged that there was nothing good about a system that aimed to “kill the Indian in the child.”
  6. Balance: Balance means having an equal weight of different elements. Denialists use a type of bias called “false balance” to suggest that the “good” and “bad” of residential schooling were equal parts of the “whole story.” This is wrong. Focusing on the “positives” to provide “balance” misrepresents the scholarly consensus, which is supported by overwhelming survivor testimony and historical research, that the overall effects of the system are genocidal.
  7. “It was of the times”: The idea that we can’t judge the past by today’s values is incorrect. Many people, including Indigenous parents, students, community leaders, church employees, and even the Department of Indian Affairs’ medical expert, criticized the IRS system during its operation. However, powerful church and state officials chose to ignore and discredit dissent and resistance for over a century to protect the IRS system and support settler colonialism and Canadian nation-building. This was done to protect their assets and defend against litigation.
  8. Civility: Some Canadians demand civility from Indigenous people when they are called in, challenged, and discredited for their denialism. They label Indigenous anger, sadness, and refusal as uncivil and exclude them from mainstream dialogue. However, public institutions accommodate settler anger and outrage used to defend denialists.

What can I do to combat denialism?

The Role of Education

We all must be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood in history and participate in meaningful discussions about it. Having access to wholistic representations of history is essential when working to combat denialism. Check out some of the resources here (link to news stories) to learn more about denialism.

Coalition Building

Being in community with others and leaning on one another’s experiences, expertise and networks can also support efforts to combat denialism. We can all work to form meaningful relationships with others who are like-minded in the pursuit of equity and inclusion.






About the Author

Heather Watts is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River and is Director, Education at the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund.