In the wake of the Senator Lynn Beyak controversy, the Gerald Stanley verdict and new reports of racism in the RCMP, critics are speaking out about racism and settler denialism in Canada.
As the nation grapples with the aftermath of high profile events that many say reveal the racism inherent in settler colonialism, some observers hope Canadians are coming away with a clearer understanding of their country’s history.
“We have to be very honest with ourselves, and we have to as a country drop the natural defense mechanisms that we have, which is denialism, head-in-the-sand-ism, rejectionism, and disbelief that we are in fact telling the truth, and that this truth has been unequivocally proven,” says Ry Moran, Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Moran is referring to comments by Beyak and others, which he says undermine the credibility of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report and downplay Canada’s Indian residential school system as a tool of cultural genocide.
Last year Beyak said residential schools weren’t all bad, and that while “the negative issues” around the schools “must be addressed, it is unfortunate that they are sometimes magnified and considered more newsworthy than the abundance of good” that came from them.
The comments were met with widespread backlash, prompting the Harper-appointed Ontario senator to publish more than 100 letters of support on her website, some of them featuring overtly racist comments.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer kicked Beyak out of the party caucus after the senator refused to remove some of the letters on the grounds of free speech. She now sits as an independent.
Beyak was not available for an interview but her Parliamentary Affairs Advisor Gerald Myall told APTN News in an emailed statement that the senator “understands the issues that affect the local Indigenous people and has been involved with self help groups for decades,” and that she “realizes that there is still hurt and anger but we need to move forward in compassion and forgiveness, not guilt and blame.”
The impact of Beyak’s comments in the Senate and to media, some say, may be reverberating throughout Canada.
Racist posters found on university campus
Last month posters containing what some have called white supremacist and racist comments were found on the University of New Brunswick campus in Fredericton.
They depict a Canadian red ensign flag and urge people to “reject the anti-white narrative being pushed in media and academia,” and to “stop the slander of the founding Europeans of Canada.”
They also argue that, “overwhelmingly, Native Americans are beneficiaries, and not victims, of the society built by Europeans.”
Dr. Matthew Sears, an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History at UNB, found one of the posters on a bulletin board outside his office.
He Tweeted it out, with a message that “the consequences of marginalizing indigenous peoples…in the name of ‘free speech,’ are real and hurt real people. Let’s all stand against this cowardice and bigotry, and call out, publicly, everyone enabling it.”
Sears says instances of racism, bigotry and settler denialism need to be identified and publicly refuted with facts as a means of educating the public about colonialism, especially those who may be inclined to believe the hateful stereotypes and misinformation that typically accompany anti-Indigenous racist sentiment.
He says that, like the so-called ‘Trump Effect’ in the United States, the “Beyak Effect” could be at play in Canada following the senator and her comments’ extensive coverage in Canadian media.
“When leading public figures are making these kinds of statements, then people who already hold these views feel empowered to make these statements,” he said.
Sears points to Acadia psychology professor Rick Mehta as an example of denialism run amok.
Last month Mehta came to Beyak’s defense on the grounds of free speech.
“You claim to support free speech, yet you remove Senator Beyak from your caucus,” Mehta Tweeted at Scheer. “Where is the evidence of racism?”
But in the days and weeks that followed, Mehta’s Twitter feed filled up with messages that revealed the professor himself questions the legitimacy of the TRC.
In one tweet he said the TRC’s report “was based on a biased process that didn’t take all views into account,” and that it was “designed to create a victim narrative that could then be used as a basis for endless apologies and compensation.”
In another, he said he fears “the TRC and the decolonization movement [are] going to worsen race relations between the indigenous and non-indigenous people.”
Questioning the TRC: informed concerns or denialism?
In an interview with APTN last month Mehta reiterated his doubt of the TRC’s findings.
“The key issue is, was the output that came from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission truly representative of what actually happened in that chapter of our history?” he said.
The TRC documented the deaths of more than 6,000 Indigenous children while they attended the schools, from malnutrition, disease and physical and sexual abuse.
But Mehta questions whether the roughly 150,000 children who attended the schools were treated any differently than non-Indigenous students in Canada.
“In terms of the abuse, the norms at that time were very different, so I’d want to see what the comparisons were in terms of the non-First Nations students. How were they treated?” he said.
Mehta doesn’t deny that the schools’ architects and staff were deliberately working to assimilate Indigenous children and youth, but he also believes what many were “trying to do in practice was have a good experience for the children, so that that way [the children] could adjust and become productive members of the new society that was being formed at the time.”
Sears has criticized Mehta on social media. He says that in light of all the evidence presented in the TRC report — based on an “amount of testimony and evidence [that] would make any scholar jealous” — “to simply go out and dismiss [the report] is both academically unserious and, I think, fraudulent.”
But he thinks there’s more at play behind Mehta’s and others’ questioning of the TRC’s work and of the residential schools’ impacts.
“Having privilege and having systemic and institutional disparities pointed out — people don’t like that. It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” he says.
“I think it’s a reaction to this idea that maybe people are in the place they’re in in society, in the culture, in the economy, not entirely because of their own work or lack of work but because of what structures exist, what they’ve had to deal with, what privilege they already have — and there’s a reaction against that.”
During his interview with APTN Mehta said he and other settlers living today “had nothing to do with those atrocities that were done in the past,” and that he doesn’t want to “take blame or feel guilty” for those atrocities.
“When you have that kind of premise all it’s going to do is worsen race relations. It’s completely counterproductive to reconciliation.”
But Sears says settlers have to navigate their discomfort with the history of their ancestors and country in order to grasp the truth he and others say is a prerequisite for reconciliation.
“It’s not that I personally, for example, am responsible for residential schools, but I’ve benefitted simply as being an Anglo-white Canadian, from the system that put residential schools in place, and the continuing prejudices and stigmas that exist in our society because of it,” he says, explaining his own family’s history in what is now New Brunswick.
“This is unceded Wolastoqiyik territory that my family, generations ago, was given by government, which wasn’t really the government’s to give. And I’m in the position I’m in — my family’s in the position they’re in now in this province, in this city — because of land we were given that shouldn’t have been ours in the first place. So that’s a direct material benefit I’ve received.”
Like Beyak and the UNB posters, Mehta cited comments made by Cree playwright and residential school survivor Tomson Highway in a December 2015 interview with the Huffington Post. Tomson said that while “you may have heard from 7,000 witnesses in the process that were negative…what you haven’t heard are the 7,000 reports that were positive stories.”
APTN reached out to Highway for this story but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Positioning himself as an academic and advocate, and not a survivor, Moran says that while some survivors reported positive experiences at the schools — some of them highlighted in the TRC report’s “warm memories” section — those accounts shouldn’t be used to downplay Canada’s efforts to eradicate Indigenous peoples and cultures.
“Yes, it is nuanced,” he said, “but again the big story is of a system that was forcibly trying to convert people, and children, into something that they were not.
“I think one of the most significant uncomfortable truths that this country has got to come to terms with is the fact that we are a proven, at least culturally genocidal state, and perhaps even a genocidal state.”
In his June 2008 Indian residential schools apology, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the school system’s intent and consequences, and the disparity in the number of negative and positive accounts from survivors.
“While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools these stories are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children and their separation from powerless families and communities,” he said.
The beliefs behind denialism
Mehta made a number of claims during his interview with APTN that may reveal more about the fundamental beliefs underpinning his position on residential schools, Indigenous peoples, rights and sovereignty.
He called those behind Idle No More, the Indigenous-led grassroots movement initiated in 2012, “echo activists,” adding that alongside corrupt chiefs those activists are actively working to draw money from Canada’s coffers.
“Because of course when you have a victimhood narrative, that does give a basis now for apologies and compensation and whatnot,” he said.
Mehta also argued that Indigenous people in Alberta who oppose the tar sands and the associated environmental and health consequences “could have moved somewhere else in the country.”
He also questioned the legitimacy of oral history, the method of knowledge-sharing that has enabled Indigenous societies to pass traditional knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation, saying “there’s no way to verify the [truth of a] statement one way or another.”
Mehta has also vocalized his opposition to Acadia University’s decision to do land acknowledgements on campus. He has criticized the decision-making process that led university administration, faculty and students to acknowledge before classes that they are on the traditional and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq.
Asked if he acknowledges that he lives and works on land the Mi’kmaq have always maintained is unceded, Mehta said the Mi’kmaq “can take that up with the courts.”
Presented with the facts that a disproportionate number of Indigenous men and women are represented in Canadian prisons, of the poverty and lack of clean drinking water on reserves, of the intergenerational trauma from residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and the ongoing crisis of Indigenous children in state custody, and the mental health, addiction and suicide epidemics — and asked whether these could be described as consequences of Canada’s efforts to assimilate or eradicate Indigenous people, Mehta didn’t say yes or no, only that “everyone does have personal agency as well,” and that “at some point we do need to start balancing rights with responsibilities, because those do go hand in hand.”
Sears says Mehta has “abdicated his responsibility as an educator because he can’t possibly provide a meaningful and educational environment for his students with these public [statements],” and that Acadia has an obligation to publicly denounce Mehta’s comments.
“At the bare minimum the university could say something like, he has the freedom to say these things but they do not reflect the views of Acadia University and…we will work as hard as we can to ensure Indigenous students are made to feel that they’re welcome on this campus.”
Scott Roberts, a spokesperson for the university, says Acadia will not be issuing a public statement regarding Mehta’s comments or behaviour but is “currently providing solutions for students who have raised concerns so they are not forced to take a course from Dr. Mehta.”
He says the onus is on individual students to share their concerns with the university before alternate arrangements for study can be made.
Indigenous students and faculty respond
Harrison Paul, a member of the Indigenous Students Society of Acadia, says when Mehta’s comments made national headlines some students “reacted in a state of shock because they couldn’t believe that at the institution we are [at] now something like that could have been said.”
He says Mehta’s comments don’t “make a lot of us feel safe as Indigenous students,” but that the Indigenous community at Acadia have “started to come together” on campus to talk about the residential schools and their impacts on Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous peoples in Canada.
He also says Mehta’s comments don’t reflect the broader Acadia community’s views on residential schools and the decolonization movement.
“Who we are is this larger group who actually believes that residential schools were a bad thing, that we are on Mi’kma’ki, and the Indigenous people should not…feel threatened or feel like they are being removed from the university community itself.”
At UNB, Elder-in-Residence Opolahsomuwehs told APTN that days after the posters were found on the Fredericton campus more than 100 students, faculty and other members of the university community came together in ceremony to heal.
“When posters are put up making it seem like [residential schools] were resorts for our Indigenous people, that’s an insult, and obviously misinformation,” she said.
“Rather than attack with a protest against the racism, we bring our circle back together, because somewhere these young people that are doing it have stepped out of the circle of unity within diversity, not realizing we have to live together. They’re trying to impose their actions that hurt, and what we want to do is resist addressing those actions through the same way.
“So what we do is bring our circle together, bring our ceremonial gifts that Mother Earth provides for us. So we organized a circle, and we wanted to do it right away so that students didn’t have to carry the burden of being attacked culturally.”
Reporting racism and denialism
UNB’s student newspaper in Fredericton broke the story of the posters, but not after intense editorial deliberations.
Emma McPhee, editor-in-chief of The Brunswickan, and reporter Emma MacDonald decided to only report some of the poster’s text, not all of it, and to “provide context along with what was being said, as well as some of the ironies in what [the poster] were saying and how it didn’t quite make sense.”
McPhee told APTN she didn’t want The Brunswickan “to be the platform that these white supremacist views could be spread more broadly,” or to give “more attention to views that are untrue and unfounded.”
But after the poster went public on social media, and after mainstream media reported their entire contents, McPhee and MacDonald chose to show the posters in full.
The posters claimed “it was slander on whites to say that what they had done to Indigenous people in Canada was bad…and that’s why we took that as being a form of white supremacy,” McPhee explained. “If you’re saying something that is actually true, which was that the European people who colonized what is now Canada took the original inhabitants and tried to ‘civilize’ them—by saying that that isn’t bad, and that calling that bad is slander—that’s a form of white supremacy. It’s taking history and calling it slander.”
The Brunswickan issued an editorial statement alongside their coverage of the story, saying “that we condemned any form of hate speech, that we didn’t feel there was any way to cover it objectively or neutrally, just because it was hate speech.
“If we were trying to cover it neutrally, we’d be suggesting that hate speech is just as valid as non-hate speech. And we didn’t want to do it that way; we didn’t want there to be any question of where we stood as a publication when it came to hate speech.”
A few days after the posters were found The Brunswickan reported that a group called The National Socialist Canadian Labour Revival Party (NSCLRP) had claimed responsibility for them. MacDonald described content found on the group’s blog and Facebook page “racist, discriminatory and anti-Semitic.”
Days later again, The Brunswickan reported that the self-proclaimed founder of the NSCLRP was Michael Thurlow, who claimed responsibility for two new posters that were found on the university campus, and who found a supporter in Mehta.
UNB campus security has been investigating the circumstances around the posters, including whether the person who physically put them up is associated with the university, but has not made any announcements to date, a UNB spokesperson told APTN Wednesday.
McPhee said the apparent rise in public displays of racism and the way media report on them are intimately connected, and that journalists have a duty to be more diligent than ever in considering the evolution of conceptions of journalistic objectivity and other fundamental principles that guide journalistic integrity.
“I think…the public is becoming a little bit more aware that things aren’t always equal, views aren’t always held equally and we shouldn’t treat them as if they should be held equally,” she said. “When you’re talking about white supremacist, racist views, it’s a lot easier to see that neutrality and free speech and objectivity might not be the best way to go about them — and how as a society are we going to deal with this? Because there is danger in shutting out some views.
“Especially with Trump in America and how the press is covering him, the public is becoming more aware that some of these traditional views of what truth is aren’t exactly what we thought they were. Truth might not be something equally as balanced as we thought. It might be a bit trickier to go about than just trying to get two sides going against each other and trying to find a truth from that. You might have to actually hold up one over the other and be able to prove with thorough and rigorous investigation why you’re right.”
The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reported that “mainstream media do not reflect Aboriginal realities very well,” and that “because Canadians do not hear Aboriginal points of view, they are often left with mistaken impressions about Aboriginal people’s lives and aspirations and the reasons for their actions.”
Though Canadian media’s failure to adequately and accurately report Indigenous peoples, nations, cultures and perspectives has been identified time after time, Indigenous people themselves remain acutely aware of the racism and denialism inherent in settler colonial society.
“The continued abrogation of Indigenous rights, and the continued denialism that we are experiencing as a country is very serious, and it is completely reflective of the longer-standing efforts in this society to control and dominate Indigenous life as a whole,” says Moran, responding to the recent incidents of residential school denialism.
“For those that are seeking to find the silver lining in the cloud, or to deny that the residential schools were bad, we really gotta be honest: why are we trying to do this? Why are you looking for the good in this? Just sit with the bad for a minute and actually put yourself in the shoes of that child.”