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Talk examines residential school denialism

The University of Lethbridge heard guest speaker Sean Carleton (History and Indigenous Studies, University of Manitoba) on Wednesday afternoon, presenting “Truth Before Reconciliation: How to Identify and Combat Denial in Dormitories.” He spoke about how anti-Indigenous racism works and its impact on residential denial as an attack to undermine truth and reconciliation efforts in Canada.

“This can help us learn important lessons about how to recognize and combat the growing phenomenon of home school denial,” Carleton said.

“By definition, denialism is the denial or attempt to twist, misrepresent, or discredit basic facts based on well-documented evidence in favor of more controversial positions as a strategy. In this way, residential school denial is similar to climate change denial or vaccine denial.

“It’s a deliberate strategy, trying to shake public confidence in something,” he said.

Carleton cited former Canadian Senator Lynn Beyak as an example, citing her defense of Canada’s Indian residential school system, which led to her early departure from the Senate in 2021. Carleton also spoke about how the public faces denial.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown Canadians evidence of how home schooling constitutes genocide, sparking a fierce public controversy.

The senator’s attempt to put a positive spin on a sad chapter in Canada’s history was not appreciated by many,” said Carleton.

“Following the 2017 comments, Bevak portrayed himself as a victim of politically motivated attacks on freedom of expression.”

Carleton’s talk helped inspire insight, but also knowledge of the importance of truth.

“It’s extremely important for everyone to understand what the boarding school experience was, but also what denial in boarding schools means,” said Tara Million, an assistant professor at the Institute of Indigenous Studies.

“To downplay the impact of boarding schools is generally a claim that boarding schools were not part of the cultural genocide, that they did not harm the children who attended them. It’s not a denial that the residential schools happened, but it’s a denial of the impact and intent of the schools.”

The talk emphasized the importance of truth and wanted to show the audience how parts of history can be erased when denial leads to discredit.

“An important part of reconciliation is the concept of truth and this idea that we as a society must collectively understand the truth of our colonial history. Colonization had a particular impact on indigenous peoples, in a very detrimental way. Part of that impact has been a policy of cultural genocide,” Millions said. “Reconciliation is important to our nation whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous or a recent immigrant. Because our society is built on the concepts of treaties, treaties that made a nation.”

The talk explored the concept of denial in relation to truth and atonement and the importance of understanding truth when it comes to our history.

“The decision to dispute, deny and discredit the findings of the commission is an excuse to avoid attending a reconciliation and to pause,” Carleton said. “You don’t have to deal with a story that you deny. But it is the past that Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada have been asked for in the Age of Truth and Reconciliation.”

Ryan Clarke, reporter for the local journalism initiative, Lethbridge Herald

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