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When White People Lose Their Minds
On the anniversary of the "mass grave" that wasn't: This was not a story about Indigenous people grifting the government. If anything, it was the other way around.
This project took weeks to put together. It’s only been online since 9 a.m. this morning, and I’m told it’s already #1 with a bullet across the Postmedia chain of newspapers. It’ll be in running in the National Post print editions over the next couple of days. I fully suspect that I will be traduced and defamed and villified. Oh well.
There’s a lot to digest, so before we get into things here I do recommend you read Year of the Graves before you make up your minds about anything. If your mind is already made up, no matter how you come down on this whole issue, you may find yourselves reconsidering the standpoint you’ve adopted. Or not. It’s good to be open-minded, so long as you’re not so open-minded your brains fall out.
At the very least, I hope you’ll find I’ve told you some important things you didn’t know. That’s what “news” is supposed to be for. That’s what this newsletter is about. That, and shining some light on how the “news” is put together these days, and how decisions are made about what the “news” is - that’s an important part of this newsletter’s mission too.
Reduced to a summary of the 1300 graves everybody’s been shouting about:
In Kamloops, 200 “targets of interest” that the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc ground-penetrating radar specialist says are “probable” but “unconfirmed’ burials. A Penelekut announcement about the discovery of at least 160 graves at a residential school site that wasn’t announced, weren’t claimed to be at a residential school site, and may not have been encountered last summer at all. The shocking discovery of 751 graves at a residential school site in Saskatchewan that were not discovered, and were in fact known graves in a Catholic cemetery where generations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have buried their dead. The discovery of 182 burials that were in fact not discovered at the St. Eugene’s golf and casino resort, in a cemetery established by white people, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have been buried going back to the 1800s. And two Irish immigrants, buried at Shubenacadie, a century before a residential school was built there.
Now, I’m going to insist on this: What happened last summer wasn’t about Indigenous people telling lies or grifting the government. It would be more accurate to say it was the other way around. The project appearing today in the National Post is a complicated story, but it’s almost entirely a story about white people.
Some quick housekeeping:
1. If you don’t already subscribe, click here, and if you’re a regular subscriber, do please upgrade. Being a paying customer, you’ll get more than the backstory. You’ll get the inside stories. Also I won’t go broke.
2. The Khomeinists are not going get their obscene public-relations show in Vancouver after all. Canada Soccer has decided it would be prudent to let the federal government off the hook (that’s the real story) and has dropped the whole thing. Thanks to everyone who’s patted me on the back for having played some small role in monkeywrenching the operation but if you want to credit a journalist, credit the CBC’s Nahayat Tizhoosh, with an assist from Ashley Burke. Really top-notch journalism from those two.
Now. There will be more explication and backstory in a coming newsletter about the Year of the Graves, but for this one I want to draw your attention to a couple of things about whatever the hell it was that happened in Canada last year.
Already, the national panic seems to be on its way down the rabbit hole; there are lucrative academic and political reputations at stake, after all. Quite a few well-respected people will not want to be remembered for the role they played in what was like some kind of national psychotic episode. Also, already, I see the project in the National Post online today has entered the culture-wars sausage factory. Twitter is nuts. I reckoned that would happen, no matter how calmly I approached the work, and no matter how even-handed I tried to be.
I tried to leave my own opinions out of it entirely. But I have what you might call an opinion or two, or something like an evidence-based thesis about what really happened. The main thing, the thing the evidence most vigorously supports:
Prime Minister Trudeau and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett wanted Canada to have its “George Floyd moment,” which was the event that catalyzed the paroxisms and convulsions that swept the United States exactly a year before the Kamloops story broke. They were quite clear about that. It’s what they wanted. And it’s what they got.
But the first thing that needs to be said is about what all those shock-horror headlines about 1,300 Indian residential school graves add up to, in the real world. It’s this. No “mass grave” was discovered in Canada last year, and no Indigenous group claimed to have encountered anything of the kind. As for the sudden discovery of “unmarked graves,” so far as I have been able to determine no local Indigenous leader involved in the events even made such a claim.
I said I tried to keep my opinions out of it, and I did, but in the first third of the project I set out what I’d concluded about why things went so quickly and wildly off the rails, and why last year’s iteration of Canada’s many “national reckonings” with the residential-school legacy was so different from the previous ones. It’s partly due to a weird national amnesia about these things, which I’ve explored before. But that doesn’t come close to explaining what was going on last summer.
First: the advent of ground-penetrating radar, which if anything, ironically, has done more to undermine hypotheses about alleged or suspected grave sites than otherwise.
Second: The strange recrudesence of an already throroughly debunked conspiracy theory invented by the defrocked United Church minister Kevin Annett that made a great deal of mischief in Indigenous communities several years ago. The indispensable Jorge Berrera, now with the CBC’s Indigenous Unit but back in the day with APTN, did tremendous journalistic service on all that.
This matters, because the New York Times headline about “mass graves” that kicked off all the attention appears to have derived from a locally-reported Canadian Press story out of Kamloops quoting Chief Casimir’s press release, which looks like it was first noticed by Kamloops This Week. Here’s how Kamloops This Week handled the story: “Annett’s claims that Tk’emlups was home to a mass grave were met with stiff opposition and severe doubt by local and regional Catholic Church officials. . . A possible reason Annett’s claims in 2008 were not taken as seriously as they might have been is the fact he is known for holding beliefs on various matters that are outside the mainstream.”
Okay. I’d say a “sacrificial cult” involving the ritual rape and murder of children and led by Supreme Court judges and United Church leaders, headquartered in the posh Vancouver Club, is a bit “outside the mainstream.”
Third: All that culture-war hyperbole, and the highbrow apologetics for “Burn It All Down” sloganeering at the height of the church-burnings last summer. White people chucking a statue of Captain James Cook into Victoria harbour - ignoring the local tribal leadership and its insistence that craziness like that was not being committed in their name. All that mayhem.
Fourth: The “history wars” being played out in Canada’s universities, with avant-garde social sciences professors squaring off against more traditional historians, in standoffs of the kind that made the Canadian Historical Association lose its bearings entirely last summer. This is really important for a complete undertanding of why things went sideways.
Fifth: The impoverishment of journalism across North America, the rise of English-language propaganda sites run out of Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Caracas, and the emergence of vanity-project “news” outlets among genuine journalism start-ups. The new “digital” journalism landscape. Have a look at this, published by the Pew Foundation, in the middle of the residential-schools mania last summer:
And lastly, Canada’s “long-overdue reckoning” with the residential-schools legacy, a replication of the American “long overdue reckoning” with race and police violence after the George Floyd murder, occurs at a very disorienting moment across the western world. It involves what has been called a “crisis of epistemology,” the routine conflation of knowledge with belief, and the sometimes ideological refusal to draw such distinctions. It shows up everywhere when you know what to look for. As I put it in Year of the Graves, the contentions of last summer came down to a substitution of what was known about the residential schools’ “missing children” with what we were expected to believe about them.
It’s not just that facts don't seem to matter anymore. It's that it doesn't seem to matter that the facts don't matter anymore. These are crazy times.
That’s the state of affairs behind my decision to launch this newsletter a few weeks ago. If these things concern you, it’s why you should subscribe. I’ll be back tomorrow with another newsletter about what really happened last year, and why the Trudeau government wanted things to play out the way they did. That kind of thing. I’ll try to keep as much of it above the paywall, but really, you should take out a paying subscription if you want the whole story.