"Mr. Miller ignores the well-known fallibility and embellishment of oral accounts, called 'tall tales' when they are known to be exaggerated, and suggests that evidentiary concerns don’t apply"
By Hymie Rubenstein
Corpses of SS victims in a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in April 1945. After years of searching based on phantasmagoric rumours, no remotely comparable evidence has ever been found at a residential school in Canada.
THE 16 Tweets simultaneously posted by the Hon. Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, on Jan. 27, 2022, were not independent tweets. Instead, they form a single 580-word opinion piece (that can be found here) whose barely-veiled theme is that no one can or should challenge Indigenous beliefs or knowledge because of their infallible nature.
If the adjective infallible and the noun infallibility are words rarely used anymore this is because they lost their moral and self-evident standing during the Enlightenment with the rise of scientific knowledge resulting in challenges even of Papal infallibility. This has been exacerbated by the increased questioning of the scientific method during our current post-modern age. Today, nearly any supposedly settled pronouncement is met with scepticism, even rabid cynicism – deserved or not – when uttered by just about any and every expert in some field or the other: vaccination, mask mandates, and lockdowns being only the latest examples. If St. Anthony Fauci is not infallible, then who or what is?
So it is nothing short of astounding that Marc Miller can implicitly claim that he is infallible when making pronouncements about the infallibility of what Indigenous people sometimes call knowings, also called oral history passed on from person to person and generation to generation.
Anyone who questions these knowings on any grounds, including scholars and essayists like Frances Widdowson, Brian Giesbrecht, Barbara Kay, Rodney Clifton, Mark DeWolf, Tom Flanagan, Jacques Rouillard, and yours truly, are labelled as engaging in “harmful” “denialism and distortion,” “retraumatizing the survivors” of the Indian Residential Schools [IRS] and their families, and “deliberately ignor[ing] the comprehensive work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC].”
While Mr. Miller ignores the well-known fallibility, selectivity, and embellishment of oral accounts, called tall tales when they are known to be grossly exaggerated, he implicitly suggests that these evidentiary concerns don’t apply when he opines that, “… any author who glances over or ignores the testimony of survivors commits a basic error of scientific enquiry.” As proof for this alleged truism, he uses a chart that shows the very opposite, namely that the death rate at the IRS plunged to a very low rate after 1950, the period during which the oldest living students attended these schools. As for earlier times, he fails to reveal that IRS death proportions were no higher in the schools than on the home reserves of these children or that Indigenous children and adults died at a much higher rate than other Canadians during the 19th and early 20th centuries because of their lack of natural immunity to contagious European diseases like smallpox, influenza, measles, and tuberculosis.
THE MAIN Indigenous oral accounts about these and other issues in the six TRC volumes are the anecdotal testimonies of those former students — always called “Survivors,” a term invariably capitalized and applied to all former students regardless of their experiences, a word that subliminally and perversely compares these students to Nazi Holocaust survivors — who chose to come forward to tell their unexamined and unconfirmed stories with no regard to whether they constituted a representative or random selection of living former students. Despite a $72 million budget that could have easily allowed drawing a statistically significant sample, the TRC heard from a mainly aggrieved self-selected cohort of some 6,500 of the estimated 80,000 former students still alive when the hearings were held. Equally important, many of these — a skewed sample of 4% of the estimated 150,000 students who ever attended an IRS who were even allowed to hear and perhaps learn from each other’s testimonies — presented their “knowings” in private. None were subjected to cross-examination or verification, including those making allegations of heinous crimes like pedophilic sexual assault and murder that the TRC should have immediately reported to the police.
By hyper-privileging their unverified testimonies, Mr. Miller dehumanizes these 6,500 former students by implying that unlike all other people on Earth, indigenous Canadians never prevaricate, exaggerate or accept money for testifying at formal hearings, as occurred under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which has already awarded over $4.6 billion to tens of thousands of self-proclaimed “Survivors.”
Still, Mr. Miller is superficially correct when he argues that “… the fate of missing children, continues to have devastating consequences to this day. We cannot and must not ignore this reality,” and that only when this fate is determined will “We will become more aware of the truth that Indigenous Peoples have long known which will in turn allow us to better understand our history and the ongoing effects it has in this country.”
If he believes that what “Indigenous people have long known” is verifiably true based on scientifically and legally valid evidentiary principles rather than heartfelt emotive grounds or hearsay, why doesn’t this head of Crown-Indigenous Relations call for a criminal investigation into the fate of the thousands of IRS students who are said to have never returned home to their parents and whose whereabouts are presumably unknown?
But are such children truly missing or simply forgotten as are most deceased persons after a few generations? If missing, why are their names unknown? And how can children with no known names or family members looking for them be called “missing”?
As for the many Indigenous children who are said to have been murdered by Catholic clergy in residential schools across Canada, why don’t we know their names, nor the name(s) of their killer(s), nor the name of a single parent who has ever been looking for a missing or murdered IRS child who never came home? And why has there never been more than a possible single body found of a missing or murdered IRS child?
How can that be? Not a single known victim, not a single identified murderer, not a single grieving parent looking for a child who went missing while attending a residential school, and not a single body.
But to even ask questions like these is now considered genocide denial or, as Mr. Miller somewhat more delicately claims, is “Obfuscating or denying history.”
Alas, such is the nature of the pre-Enlightenment Aboriginal “knowings” that Mr. Miller wants us to accept as infallible, in the process ignoring the elementary fact that without truth, there can never be reconciliation.
Hymie Rubenstein is a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba.