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Educate or prosecute? Two Anishnaabe weigh in on how to deal with residential school deniers

WARNING: This story contains details of experiences at residential schools.

“It wasn’t that bad, they got an education out of it.” 

Michael Eshkawkogan says he’s seen that exact comment and others like it when scrolling on social media. No one has ever said it to his face, but he knows it’s out there.

“Some don’t believe churches or people are capable of this,” said Eshkawkogan, whose grandmother was forced to attend the Spanish Indian Residential School for girls in northeastern Ontario before it closed in 1965.

Canada’s Department of Justice recently confirmed it was considering different legal mechanisms it could deploy to prohibit the practice of denying or minimizing the abuses Indigenous children suffered in residential schools, like it did for the Holocaust in 2022. However, beyond prosecution, advocates stress the importance of educating people to address this issue.

Eshkawkogan says he understands how and why residential school denialism happens. 

“These churches, these people, they thought they were doing a good thing. ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.'”

He believes people would think differently if they had a better understanding of what was lost in these institutions. 

“The sheer depth of what we lost in a short amount of time is hard to grasp,” said Eshkawkogan, who was born and raised in Wikwemikong Unceded Territory and now works as the community’s wellness coordinator.

“I don’t know if everybody sees that, because you have to know the culture and its beautiful intricacies.” 

Conversations, education remain most important tool, say advocates

Sudbury-based Indigenous lawyer Martin Bayer hopes that provinces would support a federal law if it came to pass. 

But beyond legislation, he hopes the provinces will make education on residential schools and their legacies a mandatory part of the curriculum in elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools. 

“It’s not anything we can shove under the rug and pretend never happened,” said Bayer, who was raised in M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island. “There’s always things we could learn from these experiences.

“The more educated and understanding everyone will be, the more it’ll promote healthy reconciliation and healthier relationships between Canadians and Indigenous people,” he said. 

Portrait of a man
Martin Bayer was born in Sudbury and raised in the M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island. His practice is in the areas of Indigenous Law, natural resources general litigation, commercial law and alternative dispute resolution. (Submitted by Martin Bayer)

As for Eshkawkogan, he fears laws could potentially stifle conversations. 

He is not interested in discussing with people who vehemently deny residential schools happened, as “it is irrefutable at this point what has happened at these schools.” 

Rather, he believes there is room for conversation with people who downplay or misunderstand what Indigenous people experienced in residential schools. 

“This is not ancient history,” he said. “The last school closed in 1997. If I was born a little earlier, I could have attended a residential school.” 

Private members’ bill ‘in the works,’ MP says

Winnipeg NDP MP Leah Gazan previously said she would be willing to bring a private members’ bill to the legislature to criminalize residential school denialism, but has no clear timeline for when this could happen. 

“There is something in the works,” she told The Canadian Press.

A politician points while giving a speech.
Manitoba NDP MP Leah Gazan successfully presented a motion for Parliament to recognize the residential school system as a genocide in 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Previous criminal code amendments prohibiting the denial and downplaying of the Holocaust have had limited impacts so far. 

The federal Justice Department “is not aware of any charges or prosecutions” under the offence created for Holocaust denialism, a spokesperson said in a Nov. 9 statement.

Past high-profile cases of Holocaust denialism were prosecuted using other laws, including ones that relate to the Charter of Human Rights and the dissemination of fake news.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.

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