Monday, May 05, 2008

Of graves and bigots

A couple of far-right bloggers, whose negative attitudes towards Native people are a matter of public record, have airily dismissed recent claims by a former United Church minister, Kevin Annett, that large numbers of Indian children, victims of the residential school system, lie buried in 28 unmarked mass graves.

Here are what we might call preliminary "position statements" by the pair:

Too bad those 'smallpox blankets' were a hoax.


Build new residental schools, if that's what it takes and tell the detractors to go to hell.


I changed my mind. We don't need residential schools for those little 4 year olds running the streets of Saskatoon late at night. We need institutions to lock up the Indian activists and apologists, so that there's an outside chance that the concept of "personal responsibility" will take hold in First Nations communities.

These are surely not the kind of people to be taken seriously when Native issues are the subject of discussion. As one might expect, they simply reject Annett's claims out of hand. To entertain
even the possibility that there is something here worth investigating leads to glib comparisons with 9/11 Trutherism--the claims are too fantastic, we are told, and besides, the ex-minister has "issues."

I don't think that's good enough. The "butterbox babies" scandal was a strange and creepy tale, too, not to mention the saga of the "Duplessis orphans." In each of those cases, investigations finally uncovered enough evidence to demonstrate that the whispered stories were true. Babies at the Nova Scotia Ideal Maternity Home were collected and sold for adoption, and between 100-400 babies deemed unadoptable were neglected to the point of starvation. An estimated 20,000 illegitimate children in Quebec under the harsh reign of Maurice Duplessis were falsely deemed mentally deficient in order to obtain federal subsidies. They were confined to church run orphanages reconstituted as insane asylums, physically and sexually abused, and allegedly subjected to medical experiments.

None of this, of course, means that one should simply assume the truth of Annett's claims. But he's not alone in making them, first of all, and secondly he has pinpointed the alleged locations of the mass burial sites. So why not investigate two or three of them with a suitable team of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, and either debunk Annett once and for all or, possibly, bear him out?

The odd thing about the incredulous reaction to all this is that there is not an impossibly large gap between these claims and what is already accepted as historical fact. Sadistic abuse was prevalent in many of the Indian residential schools. From one-quarter to one-half of the children died. Children sick with TB were not separated from healthy children.

But the point of difference is this. Terry Glavin and the more scholarly commentator John Milloy do not think there was anything purposeful in the deaths: the horrendous toll was simply the result of a combination of epidemics and too little government funding.
This is despite the testimony of Peter Bryce, Indian Affairs chief medical officer in the early part of the twentieth century, who believed that the policy of housing sick and healthy children together was deliberate. (Bryce's protests were not well taken: he was sent off to another department, and the post of chief medical officer was abolished. And after he left the scene, mortality statistics in the residential schools were no longer kept.)

Certainly some of Annett's claims are sensational, and invite healthy scepticism. But the continuing lack of interest by the media, and the focus on Annett's own personality, should invite scepticism as well. We don't like to imagine even the possibility that the deliberate killing of children could take place in Canada: it's the "it can't happen here" syndrome. But without an investigation, we'll never know--just as we would never have known about the butterbox babies and the Duplessis orphans if people had just shrugged the dark tales off, and dismissed it all as fantasy and paranoia.

Annett is not the issue; nor should any heed be paid to the jeering of bigots. L
et's have that investigation, and find out once and for all whether we're dealing here with megalomania or with history.

UPDATE: (May 6) In what I can only consider a breathtaking display of intellectual dishonesty, Jay Currie joins the yahoo chorus by effectively accusing me of being in Annett's camp. The ad hominem attacks on Annett have reached parodic extremes--now we learn that he was a "dangerous loon" in high school. I wonder if he keeps a dog?

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