Saskatoon·Opinion

'I do not want to fight about this anymore': Residential school denial is poisonous

We have real issues about our future that require our attention, like Indigenous youth unemployment, mental health crises, language revitalization and collaborative policy development. We shouldn't have to focus attention on the conspiracy theories of those who choose to invest resources in residential school denial.

Frontier Centre ad 'a weapon designed to entrench racism'

A fellow residential school survivor comforts Lorna Standingready during the closing ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at Rideau Hall. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Recently a radio ad paid for by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy aired in rural Saskatchewan. It claimed that "Indian Residential Schools" had not caused any harm to Indigenous communities or children. It claimed that they were, in fact, good for Indigenous kids and were a place where Indigenous language and culture were celebrated. 

Now, I could easily write an article demonstrating that residential schools were, in fact, bad. I could point out how they disrupted Indigenous lives, nations, languages and cultures.  I could show that we are still seeing the impacts of them today. 

But I refuse.

That article has already been written. That speech has already been heard. That presentation has already been given. That point has already been made.

The road to reconciliation requires taking the route of truth.- Max FineDay

I shouldn't have to write that article. 

Thousands of survivors of residential schools have already given testimony about how damaging these schools were to them — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Witnesses from across the political spectrum heard their testimony and made commitments that it would never happen again. 

This ad was simply residential school denial.

Today is Orange Shirt Day across Canada, a day to honour residential school survivors and the children who never came home. It's a day for us to reflect on how we must dedicate ourselves to repairing the damaged relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada that came from generations of Indigenous children being removed and treated violently.

To have these radio ads released by the Frontier Centre anytime, but especially so close to Orange Shirt Day, is poisonous to the progress we have made on reconciliation. 

What's troubling is these ads were targeted to play in rural Saskatchewan, where many people were never taught about the horrors of residential school. Where work to repair the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities hasn't yet grown deep roots that can withstand these attacks. Where the wounds of Colten Boushie are fresh. Where tension is near.

I imagine a young person listening to this ad, wondering why his teachers wasted his time talking about this in class since it's all a lie. I wonder if people on coffee row, in the stands at a ball game, at the rec centre or in a church basement might take this ad as gospel, simply because they have largely been left out of the reconciliation process.  

The Frontier Centre is taking advantage of our failure as a country.  Because we have left our rural relatives out of the work toward reconciliation, they largely do not have the information needed to recognize that this ad is deliberately sowing deceit and division.

Ad is a weapon

This isn't just a 30 second ad. It's a weapon designed to entrench racism and spread misinformation. 

Some may ask why this is a big deal, or how this is different from other "policy issues" that we may disagree on. Well, Canada has apologized. Research has been extensive. You can talk to many Indigenous people, my father among them, who will tell you that Residential Schools housed a violence that was fierce and a hatred that was foul. 

So what do we do? For starters, broadcasters should refuse to distribute messages based on hatred and lies that pit communities against each other. Additionally, our parliament and legislatures must consider the costs of hate-based advertisements that go unchecked, and the consequences if they allow them to continue. 

I know of no Indigenous organization that has the budget to counter this. 

I am not attacking freedom of speech. This is a pushback on spreading misinformation — and hatred — deliberately. Other countries have outlawed this kind of speech to ensure acknowledgement and recognition of genocide, and to ensure it doesn't happen again. 

I do not want to fight about this anymore. I know many Indigenous peoples, residential school survivors or their children and grandchildren, would agree.

We have real issues about our future that require our attention, like Indigenous youth unemployment, mental health crises, language revitalization and collaborative policy development. We shouldn't have to focus attention on the conspiracy theories of those who choose to invest resources in residential school denial.

We have our work cut out for us when it comes to reconciliation in Saskatchewan, but it is by no means impossible. The road to reconciliation requires taking the route of truth. Allowing ads like this to be broadcast, unchecked, will certainly keep us in the parking lot.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ

About the Author

Max FineDay is executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, a national non-profit that works with youth to advance reconciliation, and sits as a member of the interim National Council on Reconciliation