By Jim McMurtry, Ph.D.
Exclusive to The Dorchester Review.
DAYS BEFORE MY termination as a history teacher for being off script, the CBC reported that NDP MP Leah Gazan – who on Oct. 27, 2022 managed to get the House of Commons to unanimously recognize that “genocide” occurred at Indian residential schools – now also wanted legislation to outlaw attempts to “deny” this putative genocide or to make “false” assertions about residential schools. “Denying genocide is a form of hate speech,” said Gazan, the MP for Winnipeg Centre. “That kind of speech is violent and re-traumatizes those who attended residential school.” I certainly don’t wish to retraumatize the many former students at residential schools who suffered from abuse or neglect. Nor do I wish to appear to be an adherent of the theory of Presentism: the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and thinking. I simply wish to tell my story.
I decided to become a public-school teacher in part for job security — which is ironic in light of my recent dismissal for saying the wrong thing in class about Indian residential schools. My career spanned four decades and included a stint as a college instructor and another as principal of a little Canadian school at the foot of the Jura Mountains in Switzerland called Neuchâtel Junior College. Four years ago I moved school districts, heading 25 miles east from Surrey along the TransCanada Highway to Abbotsford, the “city in the country.” With my wife unable to work due to cancer, we needed to move deeper into the Fraser Valley and find a smaller, cheaper house. I was aware that I would also be moving into a Bible Belt full of Mennonites, who had slowly moved this far west over centuries, beginning in the 16th century to avoid religious persecution and military conscription in the Kingdom of Poland. I made a mental note to be aware of the Christians in the classroom, but as it turned out, these kids were never the problem.
My teaching load in the Abbotsford School District was a dog’s breakfast, as is typical for newcomers to a school. Within a month of teaching at WJ Mouat Secondary, mostly in French Immersion, I had a Letter of Expectation put in my file after a mother complained about my teaching. She was upset by her daughter’s mark on an assignment and by jokes I had made, including one about the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) being the University of No Better Choice. She claimed the joke triggered her whole family because that’s where a member of the family had graduated. When I told her I had also praised UNBC at length because my son had graduated from there and loved it, she brought up other sophomoric “Dad jokes” I had made and said I had once used the word “brown” in reference to the school’s large Sikh population and had said, in explaining the limits of free speech, that teachers could not draw, for example, a swastika on the board, the implication being that I was a racist who would wish to do so. Of note, teachers are supposed to warn students when they are about to say something that might “trigger” them, in case a student or two wanted to remove themselves from the classroom. I felt it was only a matter of time before someone would object to the word “trigger” itself, and its association with gun violence.
Because I had challenged the Letter of Expectation, my principal at WJ Mouat upped his game and gave me a Letter of Investigation over inconsequential allegations relating to teaching outside the box. In one case I showed a clip from a BBC video on the French Revolution to Grade 12 history students in which someone was guillotined. Another allegation was that I played the trailer for Sasha Baron Cohen’s film, “The Dictator,” which I felt was contextually appropriate as we were studying dictatorship. It was also alleged that I used the French endearment ma chère one day in class. As an experienced teacher, I knew students could claim offence or harm from a teacher’s words or learning resources, even from cartoons after the 2015 massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine in Paris. Indeed, a history teacher in that city named Samuel Paty was beheaded in 2020 for showing cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad.
In March 2020 I was slapped with a Letter of Suspension after discussing the Paul Bernardo case with students in Grades 10 and 12, as the notorious serial killer was all over the news during his parole application. I had overheard students talking about Bernardo and later told them how he was caught (by comparing lists of persons of interest with a cold case of a rapist in Scarborough). The next day I was walked out of school mid-class in front of my students. I quickly surmised by this “beat-learn” method that I had to go easy on news of violence — unless it was violence that reinforced my school district’s message on racism, a case in point being the news clip of Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin choking George Floyd to death with his knee. The latter was deemed acceptable because students needed to learn about white-on-black police violence.
For my brief discussion on the murderer Bernardo, I was docked two days’ pay, sent over spring break without pay for re-education at the B.C. Justice Institute, and given an indefinite suspension, which lasted seven months. During this time, my principal was interviewing many of my students and producing more allegations, the most egregious being that I’d told class I hoped my cancer-stricken wife would die so I could have a better wife. (Of course that was not true. What I did tell the class was that I would be away from school for a period of time to support my wife during a risky, month-long, stem-cell transplant.) It was also alleged that I called some parents stupid. My union took my side and grieved my punishment, eventually forcing my employer to settle with me.
For the 2020-21 school year I was back at WJ Mouat and enjoying a happy and successful academic year, but a storm cloud appeared in May when my principal insisted on placing a girl from my investigation the year before in my 4th-quarter world history class. Within the first week she went to the principal with six allegations, prompting him to open a second investigation on my teaching. One allegation was I wasn’t wearing my Covid face-shield properly, another that I made a “sexist inference.” To protect myself, I followed my union’s advice by immediately leaving WJ Mouat and becoming a wandering Teacher on Call (TOC).
One fateful day weeks later (May 31st) I was teaching Calculus 12 and wearing a mask (as it was during Covid) at a high school named after the painter Robert Bateman, where news was feverishly spreading about the “discovery” of the “remains” of 215 (quickly revised to 200) children in a “mass grave” at the site of the long-shuttered Kamloops Indian Residential School. The principal used the PA system to ask teachers to stop their regular instruction to navigate the upsetting news with students. In this context, I spoke about the history of residential schools, the dislocation and despair of prairie First Nations (most residential schools being located in the West), the Indian Act (1876) and its authors’ intentions to support its most marginalized communities, the role of the church as teachers and proselytizers, and the reports of abuse and neglect. As it was a math class, some of the students were uninterested or bored by my history soliloquy, but one girl spoke up to say the schools represented “cultural genocide.” I agreed with her by saying that modern western schooling was mandatory for indigenous children after 1920, and a third of these children were placed in residential schools (another third attending day schools, and the final third receiving no education at all).
"They Were Not Forced" by Nina Green, Brian Giesbrecht, and Tom Flanagan
New Website: Indian Residential School Records edited by Nina Green
I considered the discussion to be like any other, with some students engaged and others on their phone or quietly doing equations, until a second student, flush with anger and indignation, reacted to my comment that children who died tragically while enrolled in residential schools did so mostly from disease. She said the Christian teachers in Kamloops (Oblate priests and brothers as well as nuns from the Catholic order The Sisters of St. Ann) were “murderers who tortured students to death by leaving them out in the snow to die.” I didn’t say anything more, for I feared an argument, and directed students to return to their Calculus work. The class was given a break a few minutes later, and unbeknownst to me the girl complained to a counsellor, who told the principal, who told the district, and before class was over that day, I had a visit from two male administrators who commanded me in front of my students to gather my things and leave the building. While being frog-marched through the corridor I repeatedly asked what I had done wrong, but they wouldn’t answer. When I was close to the front door I turned to them and said I wouldn’t be leaving without hearing from the principal what I had done. This request was granted, but all the principal would say to me was that it was something I said.
The next day I received a Letter of Investigation announcing an indefinite suspension and containing two allegations. The first was that I had described the Roman goddess Venus in teaching the etymology of the word vendredi (called “Friday” in English) in French class as a “Greek/Roman god who favoured girls” when what I had written on the board was “Roman goddess of love and beauty,” causing some confusion. That allegation was quickly dropped. But the second, about the children in residential schools mostly dying from disease, stuck — until recently. My suspension ended after eight months when the district released its investigator’s report. To that report, senior management appended a charge of professional misconduct, as the following excerpts show:
While on suspension I inquired further into the grave story of murdered children and found I was right. Indeed, there was no discovery at all at the residential school in Kamloops on the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc reserve. No graves. No bodies. No murder weapons. No police investigation. No corroborated witness evidence, just hearsay conflating children’s ghost stories with distant memory. No historical record or documentation from a parent or tribal leader of a missing child. No authenticated names of missing persons. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister had unilaterally lowered the national flag at home and abroad for over five months. The majority of federal MPs (there were some members absent by design) in all parties passed a unanimous motion on Oct. 27, 2022, to recognize residential schools as a scene of “genocide.” Yet all that a young media professor named Sarah Beaulieu (the sole source of the story) had found, using ground-penetrating radar in an abandoned apple orchard on the reserve, were soil anomalies, likely sewage trenches or septic tiles from 1924 which were documented but which Dr. Beaulieu had overlooked.
My judgement day was Feb. 21 this year. The Abbotsford School District trustees had to pronounce on a recommendation for termination from management. That very day I saw that the National Post featured my story on page 1. I was under a deluge of support from many media platforms, especially Rebel News which sent a reporter to cover the disciplinary hearing. I boldly predicted in front of these supporters that my case was strong and the tide in Canada was turning against cancel culture, but I was wrong. I was fired and will likely never teach again.
As the Quebec historian Marcel Trudel wrote: “There is nothing more dangerous than history used as a defence; or history used for preaching; history used as a tool is no longer history.”
I would add that there is nothing more dangerous, in these times, than attempting to teach history truthfully. Or even suggesting — as used to be the mark of true education in a liberal society — that there are different ways of looking at an historical question.
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I’m sorry to hear about this Jim. The Abbotsford School district should be ashamed of their behaviour. Can’t discuss the Paul Bernardo case because of it’s violence however, the following quote from your story shows a double standard.
“ I had to go easy on news of violence — unless it was violence that reinforced my school district’s message on racism, a case in point being the news clip of Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin choking George Floyd to death with his knee. The latter was deemed acceptable because students needed to learn about white-on-black police violence.”