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Canada’s grave errors

Why does a country once regarded as a model of moderation and sanity now view itself as a seething den of blood-soaked bigotry and white supremacy?

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

‘‘Canadians used to have a reputation for being sane and moderate,” Oxford University professor Nigel Biggar said to me on a recent Quillette podcast. “If you have time, I’d like to know why you think Canada has gone the way it has.” 

By “the way it has,” Prof. Biggar was alluding to my country’s strange, somewhat manic-seeming lurch into progressive radicalism since the election of Justin Trudeau, whose government now litters its policy agenda with paeans to intersectionality and anti-racism. This has been done with the express approval not just of Canada’s academic and activist establishment, but of the many Canadian journalists who now devote much of their time to hectoring readers and viewers about privilege, systemic racism and “decolonization”. 

Of course, the rise of “wokeness” is the subject of complaint in all western countries. But its encroachment into public life is markedly more advanced in Canada than in other parts of the world. Why so? 

In some ways, Canadian intellectuals are unlikely devotees of progressive race orthodoxy, since its precepts are entirely imported from American sources. A traditional point of emphasis among our intellectual class has always been Canada’s difference from the United States. Americans were the warmongers, the laissez-faire capitalists, the racists. We were the pacifists, the socialists, the multiculturalists. 

As recently as a decade ago, our national state-funded broadcaster, the CBC, was still churning out a steady diet of dull patriotic fare that extolled the gentle Canadian social contract as a model for other nations to emulate. 

This national mythology has been jettisoned

This national mythology has been jettisoned during the Trudeau era, notwithstanding the fact that Trudeau himself originally sold himself as the very embodiment of “sunny” Canadian pride and optimism. Indeed, this was the quality in Trudeau that many Canadians — including me — initially found politically attractive. But, in power, Trudeau decided the country he once loved is actually a seething den of bigotry and white supremacism, scarcely different from the United States. 

Since coming to office, Trudeau has acceded to not one but two accusations that Canada has committed genocide — one of which involves a supposedly ongoing genocide against indigenous women and girls. 

I know of no other comparable historical example by which a nation’s officially sanctioned self-image was altered so completely — from light unto nations to heart of darkness — in the space of just half a generation. In Trudeau’s case, it summons to mind the affable child of wealthy parents who turns thirteen and then suddenly reinvents himself as an angry, sullen goth, fully convinced that he inhabits a world of oppression and injustice. 

Much blame for this transformation lies with the rise of social media, which has drawn Canadians into America’s culture war. This immersion has encouraged Canadians to believe — falsely — that their country is afflicted with the same problems (at the same scale) as those bedevilling the US. Thus did the election of Donald Trump lead to hysterical fears that “Trumpism” was taking over Canada. (In fact, Trump has always remained unpopular among Canadians, including among conservatives.) 

When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Justin Trudeau took a knee in Ottawa. Earlier this year, CBC’s flagship national news broadcast ran a story titled “Canada had slavery. Now, Black Canadians want an apology.” No one involved with this story seems to have been deterred by the fact that the British outlawed slavery in 1833 — more than three decades before the country called Canada came into existence. 

Canada’s newfound penchant for self-flagellation can’t entirely be cast as a United States import, as there’s one important factor that’s very much locally sourced. Since 2017, the sesquicentennial of Canadian confederation, the country has been convulsed by a process of “reconciliation” regarding Indigenous peoples. The record here is damning: Canada’s historical treatment of its Inuit, First Nations, and Métis populations often was marked by bad faith, racism and brutality. 

To this day, many Indigenous communities suffer high rates of poverty, suicide and substance abuse. Dozens lack even clean drinking water, a problem that has outlived the best intentions of a succession of federal governments, Liberal and Conservative alike. Even the most patriotic Canadian must admit that our record on this file constitutes a stain on the public conscience. 

Of particular note is the history of Canada’s residential schools, church-run institutions that were conceived in the nineteenth century as a means to teach English, French and job skills to indigenous students. Had this system been run on a purely voluntary basis, such a project might have been broadly defensible. But from 1920 onwards, attendance was mandatory. And so tens of thousands of homesick indigenous children were forced to attend European-style institutions far away from their home communities. The use of Indigenous languages was banned, often on pain of corporal punishment, compounding their sense of alienation. 

As one might expect, conditions varied enormously from school to school. And there are infamous cases of schools run by cruel, abusive and dangerously neglectful priests. At least 3,200 Indigenous children perished after having been sent to these schools, out of a total enrolment of about 150,000. (Many believe the real victim tally is twice as high.) 

The main cause of death, tuberculosis, also ravaged white communities until well into the twentieth century. But even so, the death rate was markedly higher at residential schools than at other institutions. And the dark legacy of these schools was quite properly made the subject of a high-profile national commission, which reported its conclusions in 2015. 

Knowledge of this backstory is required to understand what happened in the spring of 2021, when a First Nations community in Kamloops, British Columbia announced that a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of the grounds of a former residential school indicated the presence of 215 presumed unmarked child graves. The story was instantly treated as a bombshell by the Canadian press corps, and by leading international media outlets as well. 

Most spectacularly, the New York Times reported that the First Nation in question, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (previously known as the Kamloops Indian Band), had claimed the discovery of a “mass grave”. In fact, the band’s leader explicitly disavowed the idea that any “mass grave” had been found. Despite this, the original story remains on the New York Times site in uncorrected form to this day. The same is true of an equally botched New York Times story headlined “How thousands of Indigenous children vanished in Canada” by the same reporter.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that these claims of unmarked graves should have been taken with a grain of salt — since GPR data of this type does not directly indicate the presence of graves, much less caskets or actual bodies; but rather of soil dislocations that may also be associated with tree roots, irrigation ditches or previous efforts to locate graves. 

In that overheated moment, however, no one in Canada was in the mood for such caveats, especially since the First Nation making the explosive claim assured everyone that the discovery of dead children in unmarked graves had been foretold by (unidentified) “knowledge keepers”. Since the imperatives of reconciliation demand that we recognize indigenous “ways of knowing” as equal in stature to western science, even veteran reporters balked at subjecting these mystical fonts of wisdom to the ordinary fact-checking protocols of everyday journalism.

I would like to report that I was one of those few wise owls who knew, right from the start, that the story didn’t add up. But I wasn’t. Media figures, government officials, and First Nations leaders all seemed certain that these were indeed actual graves that had been discovered — and not just any graves, but graves of murdered children. 

During the height of the ensuing social panic, in late May and early June 2021, mainstream media sources even repeated urban legends about babies thrown into furnaces and clandestine midnight burials. Surely, I thought, all of these public figures wouldn’t embrace such claims if real proof weren’t about to be sprung from the soil. After all, the GPR data indicated exactly where the remains of these supposedly murdered children were lying. All that was required was a forensic examination, something one might expect to occur within weeks, perhaps even days.

It’s been almost two years since those first shocking headlines broke

It’s been almost two years since those first shocking headlines broke. During this period, not a single actual unmarked grave is known to have been found — either at Kamloops, or any of the other First Nations communities that subsequently conducted their own GPR surveys. Not one. And yet, the credulous narrative that first emerged has continued to dominate Canadian discourse. In December 2021, the Canadian Press (CP) proclaimed that “the discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in the B.C. Interior and the countrywide awakening it set off have been chosen as Canada’s news story of the year by editors in newsrooms across the country”. 

It was a surprising choice because by this time, I can attest, it was being widely — if only privately — acknowledged among nervous Canadian journalists that none of those “unmarked graves” they’d formerly reported on had yet been actually discovered. By falsely assuring everyone that graves had in fact been found, the CP announcement was, in effect, an authoritatively crowdsourced restatement of a collectively sanctioned lie. 

These journalists knew what fate would await them if they helped debunk a sacred narrative that had become modern Canada’s version of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. In January 2022, a small conservative publication called The Dorchester Review published an essay entitled “In Kamloops, Not One Body Has Been Found”. While the reporting it contained was entirely factual, Trudeau’s Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, his schoolboy pal Marc Miller, accused the author of engaging in “denialism” — a word clearly chosen to suggest a parallel with Holocaust denial. 

Frances Widdowson, a Canadian professor, was fired by her university after pointing out that no graves had been discovered. Not until May 2022, on the one-year anniversary of the original unmarked-graves story, did a large national media outlet, the National Post, publish a comprehensive account of how the Canadian media had been duped. 

And even then, the chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts publicly demanded that other journalists shun both the author, Terry Glavin, and his journalism. This propaganda campaign worked. To this day, no other major Canadian outlet has dared follow the Post’s example, even as foreign publications such as the New York Post offer candid reports. 

The personal intervention of not one but two Canadian federal officials in a bid to suppress accurate reporting provides an unusually vivid insight into the surreal state of Canadian politics under Trudeau, a man who’s made theatrical displays of national shame central to his political brand. 

The Prime Minister had planned an election for late 2021, and seized on the unmarked-graves story as yet another opportunity to get on one knee for the cameras. In June 2021, most notably, he hauled along a personal photographer to an Indigenous community in Saskatchewan so that he might capture the scene of Trudeau placing a teddy bear (left) on the site of a former residential school. 

For Trudeau to now candidly admit that all of this political theatre had been performed on the pretext of an overhyped story would, of course, be mortifying — especially after he ordered flags lowered on federal buildings for more than five months. Rather than walk any of it back, he sees no politically viable option except to continue casting himself as penitent-in-chief for an irredeemably blood-soaked nation. Canada is, to my knowledge, the only country on earth where the PM showcases his role as leader of a self-confessed genocide state even while preparing to campaign for his own re-election.

How will this all end? Possibly with bodies. Until the mid twentieth century, many poor Canadians, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, were buried in simple graves marked with wooden crosses that soon succumbed to the elements. There may well be a few of these at the former Kamloops property, and at many other former residential schools besides. In fact, it would surprise me if there were not. 

While such a finding would hardly prove the lurid claim that legions of indigenous children were slaughtered and dispatched to secret burial sites, I imagine that this is exactly how such a discovery would be breathlessly reported. Who knows? It might even yield yet another Canadian Press “news story of the year”.

But the equally likely result is that nothing at all will happen. There will be no bodies, but also no truthful national reckoning about our social panic, because everyone involved — politicians, academics, journalists — would be made to look foolish if the truth were to be widely and candidly admitted. And so they will all continue to go double or quits on a narrative that’s been growing more doubtful by the day since mid-2021. 

The knowledge that they are repeating lies seems not to matter much to these people. Having heaped such an abundance of shame on their country, they have not a speck of it left for themselves.

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