Much is heard these days about Canadian history and the truth, particularly regarding the fortunes, or misfortunes, of the Indigenous population. The narrative has been biased against them, we hear, now we want the truth, the whole truth.

But do we? Judging by the recent contretemps in Quesnel, B.C. one might wonder. It was all about the reading habits of the mayor’s wife which, it turns out, are highly controversial. She enjoyed one book so much she recommended it to her friends and that was not appreciated by the Indigenous community and sympathetic reconciliationists.

The inflammatory object of their ire is Grave Error: How the Media Misled Us (and the Truth about Residential Schools), by C.P. Champion and Tom Flanagan. The book is mostly written by a variety of academics and lawyers who, as you may have gathered from the title, are not entirely in agreement with what has become the received narrative about the residential schools. According to Flanagan, the mainstream media “are propounding—repeatedly, determinedly, consistently—a distorted and entirely one-sided view of one of the most important questions in Canadian politics.”

The Lhtako Dene Nation took particular umbrage at the book. According to the First Nation’s administrator Maynard Bara, “It just rips your stomach out. It’s just absolute bigotry and hatred.” Lhtako Dene Chief Clifford Lebrun declared, “We can no longer work with this mayor and we will not work with the City of Quesnel until [the] issue has been resolved.” Hundreds marched outside city hall and dozens loudly attended the city council meeting when the issue was discussed. Many, including three councillors, demanded the mayor resign.

He didn’t. But council did censure him and strip him of many of his duties, and he has been barred from entering land belonging to multiple First Nations in and around Quesnel. As for the book, council denounced it. The mayor joined in the denouncing even while admitting he has never read it.

The actions satisfied the Indigenous critics. Band administrator Bara said his nation was pleased with council’s decision and from his perspective, “It’s back to business as usual.”

I would hope that those who believe in freedom of expression, quite aside from getting at the whole truth, would not be quite so sanguine. There are a number of troubling aspects to this affair.

To begin with, I find it seriously unfair to hold the mayor responsible for his wife’s reading practices. Asking him to denounce his wife for her thought crime seems a tad totalitarian. Second, I fail to see what business of council it is what anybody in Quesnel is reading. But mostly I am greatly concerned at this muzzling of debate. How do you get at the truth if you don’t hear other perspectives?

The book certainly has the stamp of credibility. One of the authors, and a spokesman for the book, is Tom Flanagan whose academic credentials are impeccable. Prior to his retirement, he was a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary where he served as head of the Political Science Department and assistant to the president of the University. He is widely published, with many books and regular articles in newspapers including the National Post and The Globe and Mail. Among his honours, he is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

He is also a libertarian member of the famous/infamous Calgary School and mentor of Danielle Smith, so clearly a man I would disagree with on most issues. But he knows his history. And the book has been well received: No. 1 in the category of “Canadian Literature” and as high as No. 3 in the category of all books sold in Canada by Amazon.

I too, like the authors, have questioned the residential schools narrative which insists they did nothing but harm and were the reason for the destruction of Indigenous lives and communities. Certainly they were ill-conceived and often badly managed, nonetheless they did some good. They taught thousands of children from an illiterate society how to read and write and do their numbers. That was certainly beneficial, and some witnesses at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said so.

As for the collapse of Indigenous society, I suspect that alcohol may have been more of a scourge than the schools. For instance, that children adopted out in the “Sixties Scoop” often had serious problems may have been a result of fetal alcohol syndrome, not being removed from their culture. Indeed they may have been removed from their homes precisely because of domestic dysfunction caused by alcohol abuse.

An example of outright misinformation is the claim that some 200 unmarked graves were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. In fact, a ground-penetrating radar survey indicated some 200 anomalies. What these anomalies represent can only be determined by forensic investigation with excavation. Yet publications across the globe, including the prestigious Guardian and New York Times, reported the findings as children’s graves.

Does it matter? After all, the Indigenous people have suffered grievously from colonization. Should we not tell the story as they want it told? Should those of us who have benefitted mightily from this wonderful country not be generous? Should not the truth be sacrificed in the cause of Reconciliation, if necessary? We have all told little white lies at times, to make it easier for others to receive news or for ourselves to tell it, why not for Reconciliation?

My answer is no. Simply because if lies are involved in this story, they are not little white ones. The “graves” story has been a major blow to Canada’s reputation, to say nothing of the reputations of the churches that ran the schools and those people of good will who taught the students. The fact that our forefathers are dead should not mean it’s open season on their reputations.

Let the schools get the criticism they deserve, no more, no less. And to determine just how much that is, let’s hear a range of views. As to the blame for the pain incurred by Indigenous people and their communities, let’s weigh the contributions of all the factors involved, including perhaps the greatest of all, alcohol abuse. When a stone age society confronts a modern civilization, it usually does not fare well.

As for the “graves,” let’s investigate the anomalies to find out what they are before we make judgements. If they are graves, then by all means let’s blame those responsible. If they are not, then the public is being deceived and those who are being slandered, dead and alive, deserve an apology.

Above all, let’s not close our minds to alternative perspectives as the good councillors of Quesnel have done. Surely Reconciliation is not such a delicate flower it cannot survive challenging views.

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