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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Relative Truths and Rent-Seeking

Revisiting “Billy Remembers” with reason and evidence.

TOPSHOT-CANADA-MINORITIES-INDIGENOUS-GOVERNMENT-EDUCATION-CHILDR
(Photo by COLE BURSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

On July 24, 2022, Pope Francis arrived in Canada to apologize a second time for the “evil” of Indian residential schools. After the apology, an indigenous feather headdress was gifted to Francis, which he obligingly wore. This was immediately criticized as “triggering” and cultural appropriation. Many activists also felt the apology had not gone far enough, and a post-apology “to do” list was compiled. Non-indigenous people, of course, were told that they should not express their opinions and instead “just listen, learn, witness.”

All of this followed over a year of outrage stoked by the announcement of what the president of my (now former) university referred to as “the discovery of 215 innocent children found buried in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops.” False statements such as this led me, on February 15, 2022, to publish the piece “Billy Remembers” in this magazine based upon the ground-breaking research of Nina Green. I pointed out that the only “evidence” consisted of the memories of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc “Knowledge Keepers,” which had changed dramatically over the years. The rapid spread and acceptance of outlandish tales after ground-penetrating radar found 215 (subsequently downgraded to 200) soil disturbances reminded me of the Satanic Panic that unfolded in the 1980s, when credulous journalists and sympathetic listeners, primed by the fantastical book Michelle Remembers, fomented hysteria about children being subjected to horrific ritual abuse.  

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I pointed out the similarities between that panic and the circumstances surrounding the Kamloops Indian Residential School case. Lurid stories promoted since the 1990s by a defrocked United Church minister named Kevin Annett gained traction with the circulation of the film Unrepentant in 2006. The film, which featured Annett’s conspiracy theories, showed footage of William “Billy” Combes stating that he had “witnessed…the burial of a child” in the apple orchard at KIRS.

Around the same time that my “Billy Remembers” piece came out, there were numerous articles published by members of the residential-schools-research group with which I collaborate. Many significant pieces have been written by Nina Green, Hymie Rubenstein, Jacques Rouillard, Brian Giesbrecht, Tom Flanagan, James Pew, Barbara Kay, and James McCrae from January 2022 onward. An indigenous psychologist, Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson, also made an important contribution to the discussion in December 2021 with his article “Did the Canadian Government Build Schools to Murder Children?” Further, shortly after “Billy Remembers” came out, I was interviewed by Jonathan Kay, the editor of Quillette, on his podcast, when I again stressed the reasons why it was improbable that there were hundreds of clandestine burials at KIRS.

In spite of these attempts to apply reason, evidence, and logic to the KIRS narrative, the idea that the remains of 215 children have been found in an old apple orchard continues to be widely accepted. This was the default position in the mainstream media, academia, and government institutions until May 2022. With the anniversary of the KIRS “discovery,” however, two narrative-challenging articles finally appeared in the mainstream media.

The first, by Ottawa Citizen columnist Terry Glavin, was published in the National Post. Soon after, the journalist Dana Kennedy wrote a piece for the New York Post.  With this prominent coverage in media outlets in Canada and the United States, it seemed that rational discussion of the KIRS case could begin. But, as will be shown below, this optimism was perhaps premature.

Challenging the Narrative

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When the pieces by Glavin and Kennedy appeared, there was potential for a significant shift in how the “unmarked graves” were understood.  The investigative article by Glavin provided an in-depth response to many of the outlandish claims propagated over the past year. He argued that, while indigenous spokespeople had been cautious about reporting the findings about unmarked graves at residential schools, “white people” had “lost their minds” and referred to them as “mass graves.” This sensationalist reporting, Glavin pointed out, occurred in spite of the fact that excavations undertaken in a number of areas had not turned up any remains of indigenous people.

The piece by Dana Kennedy went further than Glavin’s. It supported the view of University of Calgary political-science professor Tom Flanagan that the claims about unmarked graves at KIRS were “fake news.” Also referenced were the views of Jacques Rouillard, Eldon Yellowhorn, and me. On the basis of these sources, it was noted that there was a paucity of evidence to support claims about secret burials at KIRS. Kennedy concluded that the narrative about the “remains of 215 children” was a “hoax.”

While both pieces were highly informative and provided a much-needed corrective to the sensationalist and irresponsible reporting about the “unmarked graves,” they also had some problems. In Glavin’s case, the focus became whether the graves were “mass graves” or “unmarked graves,” which diverted attention from the fact that indigenous leaders had implied without evidence that the graves were illicit. These leaders alleged that there was a “find of 215 children” that was “devastating,” referred to the apple orchard as a “crime scene,” and gave credence to stories that “children as young as six years old” had been woken up in the middle of the night to dig graves. A motion of the Assembly of First Nations in December 2021, made by Chief Rosanne Casimir, the leader of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, and seconded by Neskonlith Chief Judy Wilson, even stated “that the mass grave discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School reveals Crown conduct reflecting a pattern of genocide against Indigenous Peoples that must be thoroughly examined and considered in terms of Canada’s potential breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law.” Wilson has gone on to assert recently that more effort should have been made to get the Pope to visit KIRS because “that’s where all the mass graves and burial sites were found.” 

Glavin downplayed the role of the indigenous leadership in the construction of the “remains of 215 children” narrative, which caused him to avoid any discussion of the strange way that the explosive allegations were released. According to Nina Green, who had a telephone conversation with CFJC Today Kamloops journalist James Peters in September 2021, a “scoop” about the story was given to him because of his media outlet’s relationship to indigenous groups. This led him to write a story that uncritically regurgitated the misleading claims of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc press release, followed by a tweet stating that “Tk’emlups confirms bodies of 215 children buried at former #Kamloops Indian Residential School site.”

Peters’s piece was followed by similar articles over the next six weeks, in spite of the fact that the GPR specialist, Sarah Beaulieu, did not attend a press conference to discuss her findings until July 15, 2021, and her report has never been released. Then, when demands for evidence began in May 2022, James Peters posted a Twitter thread castigating “deniers and contrarians” for asserting that “It’s all theoretical until the remains are exhumed.” According to Peters, this demand for evidence was “counterproductive and harmful” because “it silences the accounts of residential school survivors” who already “know damn well that there are bodies.” He went on to conclude: “This ‘skepticism’ makes me so angry. What’s the point? What objective do you have to doubt what Indigenous people are saying about the legacy of residential schools, the pain they have suffered and the work they have undertaken — besides outright racism?”

In contrast to Glavin’s reluctance to consider the role played by indigenous leaders in disseminating misinformation, the New York Post article overstated matters and argued that the KIRS case was a massive deception (when it could be due to misremembering). Instead of pointing out that there was no evidence for the allegations being made, Kennedy jumped to the unwarranted conclusion that the indigenous assertions were a “hoax.” That being said, there are many reasons why the existence of 215 (or 200) illicit graves at KIRS is highly unlikely. It is amazing to hear journalists maintain that the stories about children being buried secretly have some credibility. Even Terry Glavin remarked that he would “fully expect that, if there were excavations at Kamloops, you’re going to find burials, you’re going to find kids,” because of the high mortality rates in residential schools.

When Activists Masquerade as Scholars

The two pieces by Glavin and Kennedy were an important breakthrough, but the concerted attempts by activists to smear anyone skeptical of the “remains of 215 children” narrative have stalled rational discussion. This was seen in the responses to the Glavin and Kennedy articles. One response appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation website and was co-authored by Kisha Supernant and Sean Carleton, professors at the University of Alberta and University of Manitoba respectively. Another was by Niigaan Sinclair, a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and indigenous studies professor at the University of Manitoba. Both rebuttals characterized Glavin and Kennedy, as well as the sources they relied upon, as “residential school denialists.”

Carleton has been making arguments about “residential school denialism” for over a year and is a self-proclaimed “expert” in the area. Supernant is one of the main beneficiaries of funding earmarked for the GPR “unmarked graves” searches. Both, therefore, are highly invested in the narrative about the “probable” existence of the “remains of 215 children.” Supernant and Carleton respond to the obvious conclusion that excavations are needed to prove the existence of remains with the assertion that “Indigenous Nations are [not] under any obligation to dig up their relatives to prove what we already know happened,” as they “do not owe anyone the bodies of their children.”

Niigaan Sinclair is also a professor who takes on the mantle of activism rather than evidence-based inquiry. Closely aligned with Carleton and Supernant, Sinclair resorts exclusively to ad hominem attacks and makes no effort whatsoever to analyze arguments that are critical of the propagandistic narrative. He asserts that “denialism” is an “addiction” and seems to believe that it is enough to aggressively denounce anyone who is skeptical about his highly dubious allegations. Critics are characterized as “rich, elite Canadian men…who benefit from ignorance, propaganda and lies.”  All testimonies of “survivors” must be believed, according to Sinclair, and he states as a “fact” that “murder . . . happen[ed]” at the residential schools.

While no one should be surprised that activists, even if they are posing as “scholars,” would try to subvert rational arguments, one should be more disturbed by professional, university, and governmental entities jumping on the “denialist” accusation bandwagon. The University of Manitoba’s Centre for Human Rights, for example, enthusiastically supported Carleton’s efforts “to identify & confront residential school #denialism.” Then there was the Joint Statement on Indian Residential School Denialism by the Canadian Archaeological Association, the Society for American Archaeology, the Canadian Association for Biological Anthropology, and the Canadian Permafrost Association. This was approvingly retweeted by Marc Miller, the Canadian Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations.

The most surprising development was the response of Jesse Wente, the chair of the Canada Council for the Arts. Wente, whose position is funded and accountable to the Parliament of Canada, accosted the journalist Jesse Brown for inviting Terry Glavin on his program to talk about his article. According to Wente, Brown should not give Glavin a platform as “it would hurt [indigenous people] too much.” Instead, Wente condescendingly recommended that Brown “consider what harm reduction might look like in these situations from a media perspective.” This would involve replacing Glavin with indigenous guests who would be supportive of the illicit-graves narrative. 

There was one substantive response. This was undertaken most comprehensively by Kisha Supernant on May 27, 2022. In a multi-post Twitter thread, Supernant explained that articles “debunking” unmarked graves were “deeply concerning” and “harmful,” because it is known that children died “in large numbers” and, even if they were buried in cemeteries, “one grave of a child beside a school is one too many.”

In this commentary, Supernant deploys what has been called the “motte-and-bailey fallacy,” in which two positions that share similarities are conflated. Activists put forward the claim that there are 215 secret burials of children in the apple orchard, but when skeptics demand evidence for this controversial claim, activists retreat to a more easily defensible position, namely, that there are many unmarked graves in the cemeteries, due to large numbers of children dying from disease and the wooden crosses identifying the site of their remains deteriorating over time. 

The latter argument is uncontroversial, and was made repeatedly by Rodney Clifton and Brian Giesbrecht on the panel “Can we discuss those unmarked graves?” in July 2021. In response to the emerging hysteria about the KIRS claims, both Clifton and Giesbrecht have cautioned that there are many unmarked graves across the country, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in forgotten cemeteries. When Giesbrecht articulated this position in a column for the Winnipeg Sun, however, an indigenous group demanded that the “callous article” be pulled. The fact that this argument is now being made by activists as a motte-and-bailey strategy gives us a sense of the unprincipled character of the assertions being made. Their impetus is to take whatever position is needed to enhance their rent-seeking ability, not to pursue the truth.

Critical Thinking Is Not "Denialism"

The anti-intellectualism of the Supernant/Carleton and Sinclair pieces led me to write a response in June 2022 in the publication True North.  I originally pitched it to the CBC so I could directly respond to the Supernant/Carleton piece, but my efforts were breezily dismissed with the standardized reply: “Thank you for this submission, Frances, but we won’t be able to take it on.” This was in spite of the fact that the CBC claimed to want to hear from people with a “strong opinion that could add insight, illuminate an issue in the news, or change how people think about an issue.” Although Sean Carleton was aware of my piece criticizing his work, his role as a “residential school denialism expert” made him feel that it was unnecessary to address any of its points. Instead, he just posted a meme implying that my attempts to “ask questions” amounted to a Trojan horse for “residential school denialism” intended to “maintain the colonial status quo.”

The accusation of “denialism” is illuminating, as it actually describes the response of scholactivists like Carleton to evidence-based critiques. Since the publication of “Billy Remembers,” no arguments or evidence has been offered to rebut what was put forward. This means that the following facts remain unchallenged:

  • the tooth excavated in or near the apple orchard has been determined not to be human;
  • no one can verify the existence of the human rib bone, originally reported to have been found in the apple orchard by a tourist;
  • 215 soil disturbances were downgraded to 200 because 15 were in an area that had been previously excavated where no remains had been found;
  • the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc leadership still refuses to release the Beaulieu report of the GPR findings, preventing it from being reviewed by disinterested experts;
  • the Simon Fraser Archaeology department has been directed by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s lawyer not to discuss the case;
  • only one eyewitness of the burial of a child has been confirmed, and this person, William “Billy” Combes (since deceased), was closely associated with the conspiracy-monger Kevin Annett; and
  • all accounts of burials not connected to Annett emerged only after the press release of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc erroneously asserted that the “remains of 215 children” had been “confirmed.”

In addition to Carleton et al. not being able to provide anything to refute these points, new information recently released casts further doubt on the claim about the soil disturbances being human remains.  This is the research of “Kam Res” on the website “Graves in the Apple Orchard: Contextualizing and questioning the claims.” Kam Res—a pseudonym—is, according to Terry Glavin and Hymie Rubenstein, an architectural consultant or architect “who specializes in site inspections and has a keen interest in aerial photography and archival research.” As a result of the documentation of Kam Res, it is now understood that the KIRS site has been shaped by “130 years of intense agricultural activity and infrastructure projects.” This includes “irrigation pipes, ditches, and flumes,” deep furrows in the school garden in the 1930s and 1940s, and 77 trees planted in the 1940s. Most significantly, a sewage-retention pond covering 30 percent of the apple orchard was created in 1958, and excavations were undertaken by archaeologists from Simon Fraser University in 1998, 2002, and 2004. Although animal bones and artifacts were unearthed, there were no graves discovered in any of these projects. The documentation of all of these developments led Kam Res to ask why it is assumed that the soil disturbances located by GPR were charaterized as “probable graves” in the Beaulieu Report commissioned by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc.

Opposing Postmodernism's De-Enlightenment Project

In the fall of 2021, my colleague Nina Green sent out several mass emails to journalists alerting them to the incorrect information they were disseminating about the “discovery” of “unmarked graves” at KIRS. In spite of these efforts, the misinformation continued. This raises questions as to why discussions about the residential schools have been so impervious to evidence-based arguments.

Terry Glavin argues that it is not simply that people no longer think truth is important; they don’t think it is important that people don’t think truth is important. This, of course, reflects the relativist character of what has been called “postmodernism,” defined by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont as “an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a ‘narration,’ a ‘myth’ or a social construction among many others.”

The influence of postmodernism can be seen in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s approach to understanding the past. In his opening statement at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, for example, Commissioner Murray Sinclair made a distinction between “factual truths” and “relative truths.” The latter concerned how people felt, in contrast with the former, which consisted of evidence-based claims that could be objectively verified. Declaring that both were “truths” resulted in the TRC accepting all testimonies as sacrosanct “lived experience” rather than limited and selective memories shaped by the emotional context in which they were recalled. 

As was explained in “Billy Remembers,” Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay elaborate upon this phenomenon further in their discussion of what they call “reified postmodernism,” known colloquially as “woke-ism.”  Reified postmodernism is when the subjective and relativist character of postmodernism becomes totalitarian by insisting that the identities of individuals belonging to groups perceived to be oppressed be “made real.” In the case of indigenous people, the identity in question is being a “genocide survivor.” Because illicit graves are a major indicator of genocide, there is an eagerness to accept that there are thousands of clandestine burials of indigenous children in Canada.

Reified postmodernism is particularly pronounced with respect to indigenous-nonindigenous relations because of the patronization pervaading this area. For some time, there has been pressure to respect indigenous “ways of knowing” to bring about “reconciliation.” This actually means pretending to agree with whatever an indigenous “Knowledge Keeper” says, which actually undermines the prospect of improved indigenous-nonindigenous relations. Greater understanding cannot emerge if people are made to pretend that ideas contrary to knowledge are true. Deceiving others, even if rooted in good intentions, cannot inspire trust. 

In order for us to improve conditions for indigenous people and be just in our time, open and honest discussion is desperately needed. Until we are committed to determining the truth, not “relative truths,” we will not have the common basis needed to act effectively and achieve reconciliation. Currently, “truth and reconciliation” references are only being used as a weapon to extract reparations for privileged indigenous leaders and the Aboriginal Industry. The constant encouragement of rent-seeking behavior fails to address the marginalization and dependency that continue to plague isolated indigenous communities.