WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. In Canada, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

Kimberly Murray says she would rather get the hate mail than have the hate directed at survivors of Canada’s notorious Indian residential school system.

But it’s there. A rising tide of resident school denialism is sweeping across Canada as the country approaches its third Truth and Reconciliation Day, known as Orange Shirt Day, as an official holiday on Saturday, Sept. 30.

Murray, Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk, who is Canada’s independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites, told ICT that she and her staff face an onslaught of hate from extremists who deny that First Nations and other Indigenous children were forced into residential schools to strip them of their culture, family and beliefs, and that many of them died there.

The denialism is surfacing at a community level and within academics, and has found space in a variety of media, including Canada’s National Post and the New York Post. A concerted effort to deny the abuses in the schools is continuing to grow, despite apologies from Pope Francis, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the head of every major church that operated the schools.

It has now spread to include the denial of the existence of unmarked graves connected to schools all across Canada, beginning with the revelations of 215 anomalies found near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May 2021.

“I get the hate emails almost every day in my inbox. It's quite abusive,” Murray told ICT. “But in my mind, I'd rather them be attacking me than the survivors and the communities as they're doing this sacred work of trying to recover the children.”

Murray was tasked by the Canadian government with making recommendations for a new federal legal framework to ensure the respectful and culturally appropriate treatment of unmarked graves and burial sites of children at former Indian residential schools and associated institutions.

Her office released an interim report in June that included a section on the impact of residential school denialism.

“Every time an announcement of anomalies, reflections or recoveries relating to the existence of unmarked burials is made, Indigenous communities are being attacked by denialists challenging these findings,” the report stated. “This violence is prolific and takes place via email, telephone, social media, op-eds and, at times, through in-person confrontations.”

Leah Gazan, a New Democratic Party Member of Parliament, is developing legislation to make residential school denialism “hate speech” under Canadian law. Wood is Mountain Lakota First Nation in Saskatchewan and represents the voting district, or riding, of Winnipeg Centre in Manitoba.

“I can't think of anything more violent than to question somebody's genocide, or to minimize somebody's genocide, that seems to be growing in this country,” Gazan told ICT following debate in Canada’s House of Commons, which just returned for its fall session.

“I feel that survivors and their families deserve protection. We often talk about residential schools, but we don't really have serious discussions on the ongoing impacts for survivors and their families. How delicate it is. And hopefully, putting forward legislation will address some of these issues.”

Sept. 30 is also the National Day of Remembrance in the U.S., designed to recognize the U.S Indian boarding school system. Indigenous Peoples Day is celebrated on Oct. 9, which is also Columbus Day.

Although denialism has surfaced in the U.S. as well, it does not appear to have reached the fevered pitch it is approaching in Canada.

A week-long celebration of the Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, 2021 in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, included a walk from the Riverbank Discovery Center to the Brandon Indian Residential School site to honor those who suffered in residential schools. The day, originally known as Orange Shirt Day, is now a national holiday in Canada. The U.S. celebrates Sept. 30 as a Day of Remembrance. (Photo by Dannielle Morrisseau for Indian Country Today)

‘Racist commentary’

Murray was tapped in June 2022 to head the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Residential Schools.

A citizen of the Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk Nation, Murray is a lawyer who was the Province of Ontario’s first assistant deputy minister general for Indigenous justice and who served as executive director of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

She has also worked to assist survivors at Six Nations of the Grand River to create the Survivors Secretariat and help commence the search processes to recover the missing children and unmarked burials at the Mohawk Institute.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s Orange Shirt Day, she has been doing speaking engagements to non-Indigenous organizations, including a recent presentation to the Law Society of Ontario, the governing body of lawyers in the province. Deniers were there.

“I warned the organizers about the deniers and how they're following me around and showing up at things. And sure enough, the Q&A was full of racist commentary,” Murray said.

“I felt horrible because the moderator of the Q&A was an intergenerational survivor, an Indigenous woman, and she wasn't ready for that,” she said. “She wasn't ready to see the hate that was coming out in an event that was being sponsored by the legal association, the governing body that tells lawyers they have to be ethical. It's a big problem. It's a growing problem.”

The acceptance of these theories that reject the overwhelming historical evidence is not just about denying history but also responsibility.

“For the general Canadian public, it's easier for them to believe the deniers because if they side with the deniers, it means that they themselves don't have to take action,” says Murray. “Because if they are going to follow the truth and believe the truth about the burials, then that requires them to, actually, take some action, as a country and as a people about what to do about the genocide that occurred right here in this country.”

Among those targeted has been the community of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, which began the work to research the stories of survivors who spoke of siblings, friends and other children who had gone missing at the Kamloops Residential School.

The community’s work led to the use of ground-penetrating radar and the news that the site contained 215 graves. Then came the denialism, according to the report.

“Denialists entered the site without permission,” the report stated. “Some came in the middle of the night, carrying shovels; they said they wanted to ‘see for themselves’ if children are buried there.”

The report continued, “Denialists also attacked the community on social media. Kúkpi7 (Roseanne) Casimir explained that the hate and racism was so intense that she no longer uses social media without heavy filters. She said that the toxicity of denialism on social media needs more attention.”

Residential school survivor Barbara Cameron is quoted in the report saying the impact of the harsh rhetoric can be damaging for survivors.

“The more that residential schools are in the headlines, the more backlash we seem to be facing,” Cameron said. “There are people out there who continue to deny this truth, who don’t want to admit that the schools inflicted these harms on Indigenous peoples and that the schools were purposely designed to do that.”

She also raised concerns that ideas that are considered fringe beliefs can gain popularity.

“The deniers called the search for unmarked burials ‘fake news,’ and it has really become more and more common in the news to hear ‘fake news,’” she said.

But she insisted that the deniers do not reflect beliefs of a majority of Canadians.

“These residential school deniers are not representative of most Canadians,” Cameron said. “Denialism is a fringe movement, but it includes individuals with power and influence to be quoted in the media and abroad. And we all know by now how fringe movements can gain momentum if they are given enough attention and airtime.”

‘Founded on racism’

Gazan, who is writing the hate crime legislation, believes the rise in residential school denialism is part of a growth of extremist ideology but at the same time is connected to the history of the country.

“We have extremist alt-right movements that are growing in this country,” Gazan said. “Let's not forget that the whole foundation of Canada is based on the wrongful and violent dispossession of lands from Indigenous peoples. Part of the colonial plan was to steal kids from their families and assimilate them because they felt that we were in the way of their economic agenda. Certainly, the history of this country is founded on racism.”

Murray said that recognizing the truth about Canada’s residential school system is part of the reason for gathering on Sept. 30 each year. The time for celebration is on June 21, Canada’s National Indigenous Peoples Day, she said.

“The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is not a day of celebration,” Murray said. “It's a day of mourning. It's a day of grieving. It's a day of remembering and reflecting and hearing truths. June 21 is our day of celebration.

“This [Sept. 30] isn't a day where you get a holiday and you get to go for a picnic,” Murray told ICT. “If you're going to have your picnic, I hope you're talking about the truth that happened in the country. That’s what the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] called for, for this day, for a true day of reflection and mourning and memory for survivors and those children that never got to go back home.”

Lead photo: Organizers of an Every Child Matters Awareness Day Walk hold a banner on Sept. 29, 2023, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The walk was held in honor of Orange Shirt Day. (Photo by Kevin Abourezk, ICT)

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Miles Morrisseau, a citizen of the Métis Nation, is a special correspondent for Indian Country Today based in the historic Métis Community of Grand Rapids, Manitoba, Canada. He reported as a national...