One of the Centre for Human Rights Research (CHRR) areas of focus is Indigenous peoples and human rights. As we approach Canada’s second official National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Friday, September 30th, 2022, how do we understand and engage with the shifting and contested conversation about residential schools and its meaning for Canada’s past and present? More important, how can we, as a university-based research centre support engaged, ethical research on Canadian colonialism, and work to communicate it to the public?
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was created by an act of parliament passed in 2021, following renewed public attention to the history and ongoing impact of the Indian Residential School System. In May of that year, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that research with ground penetrating radar found 215 possible unmarked graves near the former Kamloops residential school. The months that followed were punctuated by more solemn announcements from First Nations across western Canada about unmarked graves, including an estimated 751 potential unmarked graves of both children and adults near the Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan.
These findings were hardly news to many First Nations whose oral histories had long spoken of widespread undocumented deaths at residential schools. These announcements were also not much a surprise to those who had read the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2015 — an entire 255-page volume was devoted to the subject of “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.”
But the revelations of 2021 still prompted a widespread renewal of attention to Canada’s colonial history in general, and to the history of residential schools in particular. Eva Jewell and Ian Mosby note that in a context of widespread failure to meaningfully enact the Calls to Action, Canada completed three Calls to Action, all in the month of June. This included creating the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The creation of a holiday responded to Call to Action 80, which asked Canada to establish a day to “honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”
In practice, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has revealed persisting limitations to Canada’s commitment to addressing the harms that residential schools have done. The prime minister’s decision to take a surfing holiday on the first National Day confirmed the suspicions of those who doubted the substance of his commitments to reconciliation and Indigenous people. The response of provincial and territorial governments, who regulate the vast majority of Canadian workers, was mixed in 2021, and it is perhaps even more mixed in 2022. So far, only PEI, New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories recognize the day as a statutory holiday. Indigenous Studies professor and CHRR Research Affiliate Niigaan Sinclair explains that the response to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation has been “uneven, confusing and indecisive,” particularly in comparison to the quick action honouring the Queen’s death.
As governments waffle about 30 September, what CHRR Research Affiliate and historian Sean Carleton calls ‘residential school denialism’ circulates online, in print, and in conversations. Arguments that deny the corrosive impact of residential schools in favour of a flattering story about the schools and Canada are hardly new. But these arguments have taken on a new tenor in the last year. Daniel Heath Justice and Carleton identify some of the core shaky claims that residential school denialists make: that international legal definitions of genocide do not apply to Canada, that residential schools are comparable to boarding schools in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, that Indigenous children learned valuable and transferable skills in residential schools, that school officials and architects had good intentions, that residential school students learned valuable skills, that there were positive student experiences, that residential schools were in keeping with the times, and that Indigenous people must express their experience in specific ways if they are to be included in mainstream conversations.
What is at stake in these arguments is not simply how we understand histories of residential schools, but it is also about how we understand Canada’s past and present of colonialism. In the last year, the blow-back has increasingly focused on the specific terrain of unmarked graves. In both niche publications and mainstream media, authors have raised alarm about both the evidence and how it is being interpreted. In response, University of Alberta archaeologist Kisha Supernant and Carleton explain that “Residential schools are not fake news,” but rather a long, carefully documented story of dispossession, destruction, and enduring loss.
The CHRR takes seriously the need to investigate and explore that difficult history of dispossession, destruction, and loss, and to do so in ways that make this ethical research and thinking available to as wide a public as possible. There are events and programming exploring the history of residential schools across Canada this week. One of these is a day of programming in which we are collaborating, hosted by National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. This will include screening of Truth & Reconciliation Week program episodes as well as the NCTR’s national broadcast Remember the Children. At 1:15, you can learn about Carleton’s new monograph, Lessons in Legitimacy: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia (UBC Press, 2022). Public discussions will follow exploring “Language Revitalization, Intergenerational Learning and Reconciliation” with Pat Nadeau, Maeengan Linklater, and Aandeg Muldrew; and “How to be a Good Ally” with Erin Millions and Carleton. Family friendly craft areas will also be set up throughout the day.
The day’s events at the WAG are one of the many events being held across Canada on the 30th, and a reminder of the importance of people and organizations continuing to do the work, even when governments drop the ball or lose interest. It is also a reminder of the importance of research, and communicating that research well and broadly, to change the conversation about Canada’s ongoing history of colonialism, and the role that residential schools have played within it.
 For an accounting as of September 2021, see: Rachel Gilmour, “Mapping the missing: Former residential school sites in Canada and the search for unmarked graves,” 15 September 2021, Global News, https://globalnews.ca/news/8074453/indigenous-residential-schools-canada-graves-map/. Also see Doug Cuthand, “A Legacy of Unmarked Graves; Delving into the Hidden History of Canada’s Residential Schools.” The Vancouver Sun, Jun 16, 2022. https://nationalpost.com/special-sections/national-indigenous-peoples-day/a-legacy-of-unmarked-graves.
 Eva Jewell and Ian Mosby, “Calls to Action Accountability: A 2021 Status Update on Reconciliation,” Yellowhead Institute, 2021, https://yellowheadinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/trc-2021-accountability-update-yellowhead-institute-special-report.pdf, 2, 23.
 Daniel Heath Justice and Sean Carleton, “Truth Before Reconciliation: 8 ways to identify and confront Residential School denialism,” The Conversation, 5 August 2021, https://theconversation.com/truth-before-reconciliation-8-ways-to-identify-and-confront-residential-school-denialism-164692.
 See, for a range, Jacques Rouillard, “In Kamloops, Not One Body Has been Found,” Dorchester Review, 11 January 2022; Terry Glavin, “The Year of the graves: How the world’s media got it wrong about residential school graves,” National Post, 27 May 2022; Dana Kennedy, ‘The biggest fake news story in Canada’: Kamloops mass grave debunked by academics,” New York Post, 25 September 2022.
 Kisha Supernant and Sean Carleton, “Fighting ‘denialists’ for the truth about unmarked graves and residential schooling,” CBC Opinion, 3 June 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/opinion-residential-schools-unmarked-graves-denialism-1.6474429.
Dr. Adele Perry is director of the Centre for Human Rights Research and distinguished professor of history and women’s and gender studies. She is a historian of colonialism, gender, race and western Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. From 2003 to 2014, Perry held a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair and she is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and past president of the Canadian Historical Association.