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Debunking denialism and the so-called ‘mass grave hoax’: A Q&A with Sean Carleton



In 2021, thousands of people in orange shirts walked in the town of “Chemainus” in solidarity with the survivors of the former Kuper Island residential “school” and their families. Photo by Anna McKenzie

Researchers at the University of Manitoba (UM) have released a report that combats what they say is a new strain of residential “school” denialism.

The report, released on Oct. 11, debunks conspiracy theories about a so-called “mass grave hoax” — a narrative that is “not supported by the evidence,” according to researchers Sean Carleton and Reid Gerbrandt.

The research involved fact-checking 386 news stories that were published in the six months following the news that evidence of unmarked burial sites was identified on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The news unleashed a national reckoning around residential “schools” and led to many similar uncoverings across the country. However, it also led to a slew of denialists decrying the investigations as a “hoax.” 

UM’s report ultimately found that there is no truth to claims that media, government and First Nations purposefully misreported potential unmarked graves at former residential “schools” as “mass graves” for political or ideological reasons. The report also found that of the 135 news articles that contained inaccuracies, only 25 used the term “mass graves” when referencing the discoveries. 

To learn more about this research, IndigiNews had a conversation with Carleton, who is a non-Indigenous assistant professor in the Department of History and Indigenous Studies at UM, and author of the book Lessons in Legitimacy: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Anna: Can you tell me why you think it’s important to debunk myths about these “discoveries” at Canada’s former residential “schools”?

Sean: I think in the last number of years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report, and especially since the Kamloops 215 announcement, we’ve seen a concerning rise in residential school denialism.

To be clear, it’s not that people deny that residential schools happened, but rather, denialism is a strategy to downplay, twist and misrepresent basic facts about something — to shake public confidence. In this case, it’s shaking confidence in survivor testimony, and the experiences of many students in residential schools. 

I think some people don’t realize how damaging denialism is for the people who have spoken their truth, and I also think that’s exactly why denialists do it. They’re trying to intimidate, discredit and come up with a sort of backlash argument or counter narrative to try and slow the progress on truth and reconciliation in this country. That kind of misinformation and disinformation needs to be confronted head on.

A: That’s really well said, thank you so much. Can you tell me more about why you chose to focus your research on this topic?

S: I made a commitment to a family member who attended the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C, that I would use my energy to understand more about residential school history. This motivated me to get involved in helping other settler Canadians, like me, to understand more about the history of colonialism and schooling. 

As a historian, I teach classes on residential school history, literature, and help people understand the truth that survivors have been telling us, and what we understand from the church and state records about the system. I think for me, I started to realize that there were people out there who didn’t just not know about residential schools, but would prefer not to know and are actively trying to undermine any changes in terms of Indigenous and settler relations.

I felt like I had a direct responsibility as I saw this misinformation as an affront to the work that survivors have done. The TRC final report formula was very clear — we have to have truth and then truth will lead to healing injustice. Healing injustice will lead to reconciliation. I think denialists understand that formula and what they’re trying to do is undermine people’s truth so that they don’t have to do the healing injustice and reconciliation part. I think we all have a responsibility to ensure in this age of misinformation that that doesn’t happen, and that we don’t miss this opportunity to learn from survivors. 

A: Thanks, Sean. On a personal note, challenging misformation is important to me not only as a journalist, but as the daughter of a day “school” survivor. I appreciate the work that you are doing, particularly how the report analyzes how “Canadian” news outlets reported on the news of the evidence of 215 unmarked graves in Tk’emlups.

At IndigiNews, we actually halted all reporting until the community was ready to share with us. We wanted to honour grieving protocols, and to not “parachute in” to get a story, causing harm to those who are already grieving. In a lot of ways, it felt like the whole media world was looking to us, as Indigenous reporters, because they didn’t know how to report on residential “schools.” We’re still in the infancy of, you know, being able to tell these stories and tell the truth. I think combating any kind of denialism is really important. 

S: The other part of the report that I think is important is that we noticed a new strain of denialism emerge about a year after the Kamloops announcement. Claims that journalists universally misreported to shock and guilt Canadians into caring. I knew that in my gut, people were confused about what was really happening. Even I didn’t really understand the difference between a large number of potential or likely unmarked graves and the mass graves. I didn’t understand the precision in these definitions and even made mistakes myself in terms of figuring out what was being identified here. However, I had a feeling that the people who are trying to discredit the final report of the TRC are now pushing this “mass grave hoax” narrative, so we fact checked this argument through looking at the world’s media coverage following the Kamloops 215 announcement. We found that overall, the majority of journalists in a very confusing time in a breaking news situation actually got it right.

Twenty-five of the 386 articles we examined used the terminology of “mass grave”, representing just 6.5 per cent of the samples we looked at. However, this research took us a year to do, and during that time, the “mass grave hoax” narrative floated around, and now people are picking it up and running with it, and using it as a weapon. We saw the counsellor in P.E.I who put a sign on his personal property for National Truth and Reconciliation Day doing just that. And so, I think we all have a responsibility to do the work, to look into the sources and say some people made mistakes, but they were a minority of mistakes. The amount of mass grave reporting was minuscule, and what we then see as a result is just another example of denialism. 

Coun. John Robertson of Murray Harbour in P.E.I. crafted this sign on his personal property in advance of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Photo by Harry Vanden Broek

A: I recall noticing that shift too, about a year after that devastating news broke. People were coming up to me in the street to apologize, openly weeping for not knowing about residential schools. Everyone had orange shirts hanging in their windows, and along the highway here on “Vancouver Island.” Not even a year later, all of those orange shirts came down during the Freedom Convoy debacle, and were replaced with Canadian flags. It felt like our pain and grief was forgotten about, and worse, being denied. 

This is why we felt that the research we’ve done and that the report is necessary because denialism is a backlash. It is trying to push back things. And what we wanted to do was model what pushing back against that backlash could look like it’s like so it doesn’t always have to fall on the shoulders of survivors. That work doesn’t always need to fall on Indigenous people. Reconciliation is not an Indigenous problem. It is a Canadian responsibility, and when truth, that becomes part of your responsibility to hold space for that. What I’m witnessing is that all of these denialists are trying to push back on that and trying to prevent progress. I’m hopeful that if people, and I’m specifically speaking to non-Indigenous people, can learn to identify and confront denialism, it can help. It requires people who have positions, whether it’s in journalism, academia, or policy, to find ways to push back against denialism so that we can continue to move forward with truth and reconciliation.

I hope that there will be more research done on this to give people the evidence to say that the “mass grave hoax” is a misrepresentation of what journalists actually reported. We all have a responsibility during an age of misinformation [so] that we don’t miss the opportunity to learn from what survivors are telling us.

A: Thank you so much for the gift of your time, Sean. 

The post Debunking denialism and the so-called ‘mass grave hoax’: A Q&A with Sean Carleton appeared first on IndigiNews.

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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors




From left: Whitney Cardenas, Chris Ingle and Jaden Sampson were at the career fair with PIB’s fire department. Photo by Athena Bonneau

During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.

The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.

It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.

The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more. 

Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).

Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.

Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.

“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.

“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”

Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau

As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience. 

“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.

Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.

Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.

“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.

“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”

Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.

“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.

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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect




sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr., an 18-year-old syilx Youth from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, pictured at Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court on Nov. 3. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.

The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves. 

So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops. 

“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band. 

“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”

Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.

In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.

“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.

But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed. 

At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.

“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.

Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.

He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.

In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.

“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.

A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached. 

“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.

This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”

Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.

“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.

He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process. 

“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.

Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.

Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.

“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.

“Honestly, it could save someone.”

The post For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect appeared first on IndigiNews.

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Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’




The Sweláps Market features Secwépemc language and culturally-influenced architecture. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve. 

The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples. 

The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.

The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door. 

The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish). 

On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.

Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.

The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse. 

After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place. 

General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.

The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.

Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.

“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.” 

Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.

A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.

Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.

Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS. 

“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.

Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.

“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.

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