The discovery of 215 children's bodies in unmarked graves at Kamloops, BC Indian Residential School is yet another troubling milestone in the ongoing documentary history of Canada's singularly inexpungible moral stain.
I braced myself for the actual or implied Holocaust comparisons that were sure to flow from it. And they did, of course. Kamloops was, according to clergyman Kevin Annett, proof of "the Canadian Holocaust." And "Is this Canada's Holocaust Moment?" Asks the Times Colonist, pointing to "commonalities and parallels."
The question posed above is rhetorical, for of course the answer must be yes – or else. Anyone, even a highly credentialed historian, intrepid enough to dare to say no publicly, to say aloud that the abuses that occurred in the residential schools, distressing as they were, and as deserving of condemnation as they are, as well as the unmarked graves, are in no significant way comparable to the Holocaust, will find him or herself defenestrated on social media. Not that such an opinion would find any mainstream publication willing to publish such a view.
Chris Champion, publisher of the biannual Dorchester Review (DR) (to which I have contributed and have written about) did dare to publish a rebuttal to the "Canadian Holocaust" trope on the DR website, titled "From Katyn to Kamloops." And, as he anticipated, Champion is reaping the social-media whirlwind, accused of "targeted hate" and "harassment," and even antisemitism by implication. (Champion is rather a practiced hand at pricking sacred narrative balloons on the subject of the residential schools. Just weeks ago, he wrote a piece for DR titled "The Imbecilic Attack on Egerton Ryerson.")
What was Champion's alleged crime? He had the nerve to point out the existential difference between a discovery of "unmarked" graves—i.e. individual graves that bear no names—and the discovery of a "mass grave"—that is, a single pit into which hundreds or thousands of bodies killed en masse have been pitched.
Unmarked graves, as in Kamloops, signify deaths. Death is not interchangeable with killing. It is generally agreed that the majority of residential-school deaths were caused by tuberculosis or other disease (Many of the children arrived at the schools already infected with tuberculosis. And rates of tuberculosis, virtually eradicated in the general population, remain high amongst certain Indigenous populations, rising to 300 times more for the Inuit).
Many of these deaths may have been avoidable under better living conditions or more scrupulous care in segregating the sick from the well (a lesson the shamefully high COVID death rates in our nursing homes proves has still not been learned). It may be disheartening to know these poor children's bones lie in perpetual anonymity, but it should not be shocking to us that the graves were unmarked. As Champion notes, unmarked graves "were the norm for the poor for centuries: in the Irish potato famine and during the Spanish influenza."
These deaths are cause for sorrow and regret. But there is no evidence that murderous intention stalked the corridors of the school. Yet plenty of media reports and public statements by influential people have tried to nudge us into thinking these children were deliberately killed (Google "Kamloops, killing, residential schools"; I got 3,370,000 hits).
In an open letter to her community, the president of Victoria Island University, for example, stated that the 251 children had been "killed" at the IRS. And, Champion writes, "Teachers leading classes online implied that the children had been murdered." That is wrong in intention—to amplify neglect and abuse into a radically more depraved category of oppression, against which those accused cannot defend themselves—and in pedagogic principle: children should be taught factual, not emotional history.
Conflating unmarked graves with mass graves is a sign of our fact-indifferent times. Of the two, only mass graves signify the Holocaust-style evil commentators seek to appropriate for the residential schools. Champion cites the infamous case of Katyn near Smolensk in April, 1943, where eight unmarked mass graves turned up 4,443 bodies, each one wearing Polish officer uniforms, each one shot in the back of the head. Perhaps the most famous of all mass graves associated with the Holocaust, also cited by Champion, is Babi Yar, "a ravine where 33,000 Jews were shot and dumped in a mass unmarked grave in 1943."
The story of residential schools, Champion writes, "contains many horrors but it is more fraught than that depicted by the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation) reports. They are not the last word and we must hope researchers will take more care in explaining the experience rather than making political hay or money out of it. The suffering of people long-departed should not be exploited by what has become a multi-billion dollar grievance industry…"
These are fighting words, but I think they are fair ones. Abba Eban, Israel's elegant former minister of Foreign Affairs, once said, "There is no business like Shoah business"—Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust—and he was referring to exactly this tendency: the exploitation of the dead for material benefit (even in good causes like Jewish education and community agencies). Today we might add social media virtue-signalling to the benefits received.
Champion is not stone-hearted. But sympathy must be allowed to co-exist in harmony with historical truth. He concludes, "As many of the remains as possible must be found and their graves properly honoured. Our sympathy should not be parlayed into being pressured by activists into believing or letting our children believe that Canada committed genocide. There is a vast gulf between Kamloops and Katyn and historians should be capable of knowing the difference."
I agree that there is a vast gulf between the two—far too vast to stitch together.
To cite the most obvious reason: Not only was the Holocaust the ultimate genocide, it was one that was facilitated by ordinary citizens. Everyone in Germany knew of Hitler's rabid hatred for the Jews during his rise to power. They knew about the Nuremburg Laws and its consequences for Jews; they knew about Krystallnacht; they knew about the expulsions of Jews from the professions; they knew about the round-ups and the ghettos; they knew there were camps; and many knew exactly what was going on there too. The sheer enormity of the eradication plan required the complicity of local governments and citizens in all the countries the Nazis occupied—and they got it.
By contrast, the residential schools were a scheme conceived by government leaders and staffed by religious functionaries. They were out of sight and certainly out of ordinary Canadians' minds (if they were ever in them). Of those who actually knew they were functioning, how many had any idea of what was going on in them? No situation resulting in the suffering of innocent children from indigenous communities in Canada could be further removed from the situation in all of Europe—especially the Bloodlands of eastern Europe, for both Jews and non-Jews—during World War two.
One might say that if ordinary Canadians had known of the schools, they would not have cared, because of their hard-hearted colonialist contempt for aboriginals, but "would have" and "might have" are not good enough for conviction of a crime. Ordinary Canadians were not, and are not, guilty of residential-school crimes. It is not fair for our present government to burden us with guilt for what former governments did. And it is not fair that historians who speak the truth about history should be silenced or shamed by virtue-signalling and arrogant—but historically ignorant—social justice warriors.
Editor's note: Since the writing of this article, archeology professor Kisha Supernant at U of A and others said that "the province needs to rewrite the draft education curriculum with someone who understands what happened to children in Canada’s residential school system." Additionally, "NDP Education Critic Sarah Hoffman says the Education Minister needs to pull that curriculum and sever all ties with Champion."
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