A building in a field with a mountain backdrop.External view of Kamloops Indian Residential School taken at a distance. Source: Archives Deschâtelets-NDC, Richelieu.

By Kat Fuller

“The Canadian Mass Grave Hoax” is the title of a YouTube video by the infamous Canadian political commentator Lauren Southern. Southern is known for promoting beliefs that are tied to white nationalism, like wearing a t-shirt that says “It’s OKAY to be white,” writing for the far-right news website Rebel News, and asserting that residential schools did not have mass graves of Indigenous students. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the horrors of residential schools—a database collection of narratives of survivors of Canadian residential schools, for example, features stories in which former students recall how priests forced them to dig graves of deceased students—people like Southern continue to dismiss any harm caused by residential schools.

Right-wing talking points, white supremacy, and justifications of settler colonialism often go hand-in-hand with misinformation and disinformation. In 2017, for example, former Canadian Senator Lynn Beyak gave a speech claiming that we should acknowledge how residential schools have done “good deeds” for Indigenous students. Contrary to Beyak’s claims, the phrase “Kill the Indian, save the child”—a variation on American military officer Richard Henry Pratt’s infamous suggestion to “Kill the Indian him, and save the man”—became a known motto for North American residential schools, where from 1828 to 1998 more than 150,000 Indigenous children routinely experienced humiliations like being disciplined with straps and having their long hair cut against their will. When Beyak dismissed the criticism against her speech as “fake news and exaggeration,” she ignored the systemic and social racism that residential schools are built on – and in doing so, enforced a colonial mentality in which gaslighting is routinely a part.

Since the 1870s, more than 6,000 students who attended Canadian residential schools have either died or gone missing. In 2022, over 2,000 unmarked graves were discovered on properties that were once used as residential schools. Residential boarding schools (a feature of settler colonialism in settler societies within and beyond Canada) were authorized by the Canadian federal government to target Indigenous youth to conform to settler colonialism. Authorities separated children from their families if they believed a youth was not cared for or was not assimilating enough into White Canadian culture. A direct result of colonization, these schools reflect the reality of white supremacy and its continued impact on Indigenous communities. The historical violence against the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people has caused intergenerational trauma for these communities, who are still trying to navigate the cultural genocide that has occurred throughout Canadian history and into the present. Many survivors of residential schools report struggling to complete everyday activities, including how the smell of bleach triggers painful memories of being forced to clean the school or wash themselves with bleach to whiten their skin.

Indigenous communities continue to experience said violence through the practice of social (or collective) amnesia – a colonial mentality that has allowed white supremacy to flourish under a false perception of Canadian history that privileges the perspectives of settlers and subjects Indigenous voices and experiences to erasure. Canadians’ social amnesia has worked to reinforce hierarchical or racist beliefs, such as presupposing that pre-colonial Indigenous peoples were more “primitive” than Europeans and minimalizing the violent acts that occurred – and continue to occur – through colonization.

Intergenerational trauma is another way in which Indigenous communities face continued violence stemming from their experiences in residential schools. One woman, for example, made her children clean the house viciously every Saturday, echoing what she  experienced at the residential school she grew up in. Another woman recalls having difficulties with her relationships due to growing up in a residential school, as she didn’t know how to bond with her children emotionally; she instead used strict discipline with her children and took several years to learn how to be close with them.

As more unmarked graves near residential schools are discovered, the mainstream media should provide more coverage of the significant horror these schools caused for Indigenous children and their families. Media coverage of residential schools will increase public awareness of their cruelty and debunk misleading information that sugarcoats the reality of residential schools while making people critically reflect on their political and cultural qualities, such as the politics of cultural assimilation. Media coverage should include a focus on children being taken away from their parents, being forced to speak only English or French and following Eurocentric standards, and the impact of physical, psychological, and sexual violence. Not only did children face these abuses, but they were also strongly malnourished and developed health problems from the abuse and unsanitary environment. The brutality of residential schools blurs the boundaries that separate cultural genocide from ‘direct and public incitement to commit genocide.’

Residential schools lead to the loss of cultural knowledge, including languages and parental lineage. Specifically, more than 70 Indigenous languages in Canada are listed as endangered, with only three firmly established viable Indigenous languages left, endangering Indigenous cultural documents. Survivors of residential schools recall abuse and trauma they faced that made them externally and internally reject their Indigenous identity. Dorothy Eastman, an Ojibway language teacher, shares how learning and speaking the language is part of connecting to her ancestors and restoring her identity. She also shares how the language allows a deeper connection for younger folks with elders through sharing stories, thus fostering a greater connection to the culture and community. She recalls how she was fearful of speaking Ojibwe due to physical abuse. The punishment to prevent children from speaking their native language included electrical shocks or pushing needles into their tongues, and forced isolation; fear and shame were used to control and prevent children from speaking their native language. The white colonial culture attempted to take control of the identity of Indigenous survivors, making it more difficult for them to feel more connected to their Indigenous heritage.

The public should also consider how the far-right weaponizes Indigenous communities by appropriating their struggles. Propaganda in the far-right movement uses the suffering of Indigenous communities to create a dysphoric future where white people become “endangered” and “lose their land” to marginalized groups. The far-right paints an image that oversimplifies the past through a mythological interpretation, claiming that the past was more fulfilling for white men and their white children to thrive socially until the “degenerates” took over through feminism and multiculturalism. The impact of residential school denialists is detrimental in gaining support for Indigenous peoples.  Premier of Alberta Danielle Smith claimed that the media “got it wrong”  in claiming that residential school mass graves exist. While sharing tips with college student conservatives on how to win a debate on residential schools against leftists, former Member of the House of Commons Erin O’Toole claimed that residential school architects only meant to “provide education” to the students. Founder of the far-right People’s Party of Canada Maxime Bernier promoted a residential school denialist organization known as the Indian Residential Schools Research Groups (IRSRG) and claimed that “no mass graves were found”

Right-wing denialists believe these schools benefited Indigenous children by offering skill development and education. In actuality, the residential schools did not provide knowledge that was crucial for potential career opportunities, financial security, or job satisfaction. Instead, these schools created a much higher risk of poverty due to the lack of education and psychological trauma that took place there. The trauma that residential school survivors developed has also created a higher rate of PTSD, depression, and suicide.

Creating the narrative that these types of schools gave Indigenous children resources to better themselves in Canadian society, without identifying how residential schools worked towards serving elite whites, is not only disingenuous but also ignores the historical violence that was – and continues to be – committed against Indigenous communities. Society needs to understand how intergenerational trauma from these residential schools has led to homelessness, mental health issues, and physical disabilities within Indigenous communities. To believe that the Indigenous community in Canada must have self-reliance to improve their lives, to move on after historical oppression, would be maple-washing. Colonialism still exists through structures of political racism (such as the lack of clean drinking water) and cultural racism (including the lack of Indigenous voices in media). Silence from institutions on the colonial violence of residential schools is a gesture of white complicity, thus allowing the far-right movement to mobilize further through nationalistic beliefs.

What We Can Learn about the Dangers of Genocide Denialism

Cultural gaslighting is the backbone of genocide denialism. We allow the violence directed at Indigenous peoples to continue by either downplaying it or denying its existence. We risk people ‘consenting’ to the cultural dominance of the far-right by accepting values, beliefs, and practices of extreme right ideologies, which is achieved by socialization. This socialization includes internalizing these ideologies as normal, from celebrating a white male architect of residential schools to pressuring BIPOC to have Eurocentric names and thus accepting cultural hegemony of white colonial culture as part of identity, instead of challenging it.

We cannot minimize the historical violence of white nationalism, which remains on the rise in Canada and the United States. Silence on historical and contemporary violence against marginalized groups is a form of compliance which normalizes white supremacy. Saying nothing when people support white supremacy by downplaying violence against marginalized racial groups or victim blaming allows white supremacy to continue by not challenging colonial beliefs and actions. When white supremacy is allowed to enter the public sphere unchallenged, it gains a form of acceptance from institutions and culture.

Silence also allows people to remain ignorant of the impact of colonial violence against the Indigenous community due to the lack of information.  People who support laws that would bar access to essential human rights, including the right  to abortion and gender-affirmative care, tend to believe that these laws would do more good than harm. Ignoring the brutality of historical racism leads into a culture of social and political violence. For example, anti-abortion laws have a history of harming Indigenous birthing people through the Hyde Amendment, which barred federal funding for abortion care, while also imposing forced sterilization due to the popularity of scientific racism. Silence is also a factor in the mobilization of the fascist movement as people are at risk of being radicalized through constant exposure and communal acceptance, such as ironic (racist) humor. Ironic racist humor allows the far-right to disguise their hate as ‘edgy humor’ through irony and satire, allowing them to normalize a far-right ideology into the mainstream culture while recruiting potential members.

It is important to understand what makes something fascist, how people react to fascism, and the complexities of fascism. Fascist movements have common themes often noted by scholars such as historians Roger Griffin and Robert Paxton, including nationalism and the judication of violence. Nationalism, especially banal nationalism, makes oppression invisible by getting the public to accept an ideology that supports hierarchical social values, including in-group and out-group bias. Examples include holidays celebrating colonizers and settlement while remaining ignorant or willfully ignoring that these colonizers massacred or enslaved the Indigenous. People risk being radicalized into nationalism when they believe a mythological version of the past, a false memory that the country was made utopic by imperialism and that the colonizers “saved” the land they settled. Nationalism also includes an attachment to a culture, as far-right groups sense the colonial culture as part of their identity without critical reflection on how and why the culture existed in the first place, such as the hostile responses against singer Jully Black changing one word from ‘O Canada’ and why some people refuse to stand for the nation anthem. Colonial culture becomes banal through ignorance, as people socialized into such culture take for granted what they perceive as universal, making colonial culture invisible to mainstream society. The invisibility of colonialism, the act of domination, makes people less likely to consider how and why imperialism, the idea behind the practice, is an ongoing issue in North America.

In order to understand Canada as a culture founded and structured by imperialism, it is helpful to consider a model created by researcher Gregory Stanton, the founding president and chair of Genocide Watch, called the ten stages of genocide. Denialism is the final stage of genocide; it prevents any attempts at reconciliation and can lead to repetitive cycles of marginalization, thus letting systemic and social violence continue. With the rise of white nationalism in North America, residential school denialism becomes especially troubling when the public does not take significant action through prevention and intervention. The public must acknowledge the disturbing reality of the residential schools, just as with the Holocaust and the Nazi movement, in order to stop any further attempts of genocide and to heal generational trauma.

Holocaust denialism—perhaps the most infamous examples of genocide denialism— refers to the belief that the Holocaust is a lie. This stance is taken by conspiracy theorists and is often linked to antisemitic ideologies. These arguments often gain a veneer of credibility through the creation of pseudo-academic journals.  The Institute for Historical Review, for example, attempts to distort history to reason people into doubting a genocide occurred. The dangers of Holocaust Denialism mirrors those presented above. Genocide denialism encourages people to believe dangerous conspiracy theories around affirmative actions, thus making them not only more reluctant to support progressive changes through their distrust of experts, but also more likely to dehumanize marginalized groups (such as Indigenous or Jewish communities). Genocide denialism creates the risk of platforming intolerance into the mainstream by presenting itself as merely offering ‘both sides of the argument.’ The danger in conspiracy theories, such as the ‘Great Replacement Theory’, is that failing to speak out against them allows the hateful ideology to spread further and faster, as silence begets compliancy. Genocide denialism and the practice of social amnesia reflect and reinforce the acceptance of conspiracy theories in politics, primarily through in-group trust. This can lead to the distrust of experts, including distrusting actions that would benefit society, such as getting vaccinated or stopping climate change by pushing changes in policies.

Denying genocide and believing a white-washed version of the past gives people a sense of comfort about their memory; they feel attached to their cultural memory as part of their identity without reconsideration, as they feel like their colonial or colonized identity is more universal than imperialistic.   For instance, Pierre Poilievre, the recently elected leader for the Conservative Party, who said in 2008 that “Canada’s aboriginals need to learn the value of hard work more than they need compensation for abuse suffered in residential schools,” has been praised by far-right figures such as Alex Jones. His actions as a Conservative leader and his comments about Indigenous communities in Canada minimize or deny the impacts of colonization. Earlier this year, Poilievre hosted a lunch at Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank based in Winnipeg that has denied the harms of residential schools and their impact on Indigenous children. We should be concerned with seeing such a high-profile Canadian politician involving themself with such a group.  When politicians like Smith or Poilievre minimizes historical and cultural violence against the Indigenous community, they are increasing the risk for people to listen to far-right conspiracy theories. Individuals risk believing white nationalist conspiracy theories if they feel their prejudice holds truth, such as alleged “reversed racism” against whites, while believing they are protesting Freedom of Expression to defend these types of conspiracy theories.

What makes conspiracy theories threatening is that laypersons outside far-right groups are at risk of believing them, making these individuals support actions that mobilize harmful outcomes without deeper understanding of the definition of genocide. In that case, society risks allowing fascism into our lives by allowing more people to accept a false narrative of the past.

The increasing rate of residential school denialists harassing or attacking people for speaking up shows how influential these problematic beliefs have on laypersons. We risk pushing the narrative that Westernism is more unbiased than imperialistic, especially in its values and practices that lead to more harm than good, including the history of missionaries and colonization. The risk even includes valuing one oppressed group over another through unexamined beliefs that came from the cultural and institutional structure of whiteness. This can lead to genocide or colonization in the modern era stemming from an abstract understanding of violence, such as when Italians and Irish in the United States became ‘white’ by distancing themselves from Black Americans.

The experiences and narratives of Indigenous people in Canada (and other settler colonial countries like the United States and Australia) need to be heard to stop the ongoing communal issues caused by historical imperialist violence. This type of action for the Indigenous community could help other marginalized groups undergoing ongoing attacks of colonization, such as getting the public to understand how the Israel-Palestine conflict is rooted in imperialism.  Scholar activists, including philosopher Judith Butler in the book Parting Ways (2012) have explained the Jewish philosophical critique against Zionism. They argue that criticizing Israel government for their actions against the Palestinians should not be inherently considered as antisemitic. The problem is failing to understand how and why a country is politically and culturally imperialistic.

It is essential to confront anyone who denies the cruel reality of residential schools. In 2008, former Prime Minster Stephen Harper issued the first official apology on the harms of residential schools. In 2023, Pope Francis also issued an apology for the victims and survivors of residential schools. Apologies are first steps of reconcile, but still requires much further actions to address and heal the damages colonization has done against the Indigenous community, along with acknowledging and appreciating the work and dedication in social movements for human rights, such as the Assembly of First Nations. The public must be aware and critically think about how and why racism, colonization, and genocide exist in society. Confronting residential school denialism includes debunking the misleading ideas that the children were learning “new skills” or that the church officials and teachers had “good intentions.” Without hesitation, a push for public discourse on anti-Indigenous violence in Canada is critical, as people may not be aware of how and why forms of postcolonial violence persist in contemporary culture and politics. This includes the prohibition against the First Nations to have access to alcohol as a means to shame them as ‘impulsive’ and condemn them through a moral panic that enforces racial segregation. Just as other countries like Germany and France have already done, Canada recently criminalized Holocaust denialism in the public sphere. Canada should also consider outlawing residential school denialism since the impact involves cultural genocide, intergenerational trauma, and generational setbacks.


Kat Fuller is the Director of Communications for the Canadian Institute for Far-Right Studies (CIFRS). Fuller is also a BA-PhD sociology student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His recent publications include a book review on Picciolini’s memoir White American Youth and a blog post that he co-authored with Dr. Quinnehtukqut McLamore on the far-right’s impact against healthcare on the transgender community. Fuller is working on a few projects that focus on the far-right movement and gender inequality.

Fuller can be contacted @KAFuller_ on X/Twitter and K.A._Fuller on Instagram or Threads.