On May 31, 2021, I was a substitute teacher at an Abbotsford high school named after the painter Robert Bateman when news was feverishly spreading about the “discovery” of the “remains” of 215 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 disturbing news” with students.
Because I was teaching 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 for a time as many as one-third of these First Nation children were placed in residential schools – another third attending day schools, the final third receiving no education at all.
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, gushing with indignancy, 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 did not say anything more, fearing 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 first girl left to complain to a counsellor, who wrote on a sticky note to the principal that I had said “there was no intent for murder” and it was “not cultural genocide that killed them.”
Once the principal got the sticky note from the counsellor, he phoned the district’s head office, and before my math class was over that morning, 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. I had a premonition that my career was over, and it was.
I had committed the cardinal sin of questioning the narrative of mass murder at the Kamloops Indian Residential School on a day when most others in the school were wearing orange shirts, wristbands, and/or face paint. The school was primed for a display, like the participants in Big Brother’s two-minute hate session in the novel 1984, all in the service of reconciliation. I was the perfect target: an older white stranger, an interloper, the enemy of the Social-Justice-Warrior cult that had captured the school.
On June 1, 2021, I received a second Letter of Investigation announcing an indefinite suspension. In it were two allegations. The first was that I had described the Roman goddess Venus in teaching the etymology of the word vendredi in French class as a “Greek/Roman god of love who favoured girls,” when what I had written on the board was “Roman goddess of love and beauty.” That allegation was quickly dropped. But the second, about the children in residential schools mostly dying from disease, stuck.
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, saying I “left students with the impression some or all of the deaths could be contributed [sic] to ‘natural causes’ and that the deaths could not be called murder.”
What I was learning was that my employer had the power in teacher investigations to drop allegations, including the one about Venus, and invent new ones. In my termination letter (February 2023) the case against me changed again, this time to my “inflammatory, inappropriate, and insensitive comments to students concerning the finding of unmarked graves concerning Indigenous children at the former Kamloops Residential School.” The previous allegations – that I said there was no intent to murder, it was not cultural genocide, and children were not murdered by their teachers – had been replaced by my inflammatory tone in class that day.
Then in August (2023) I received a letter from the regulatory body for teachers, called the Teaching Regulation Branch (formerly the BC College of Teachers), which changed the case against me again. Now I am accused of “falsely suggesting that student deaths at the schools were comparable to the general child mortality rate and not the result of a government strategy of cultural genocide.” In the same letter the TRB calls for the cancellation of my teaching certificate for life…before my case has arrived at arbitration, before an arbitrator has been chosen or dates have even been set, and long before the merits of my case have been fairly determined.
In Kafka’s play The Trial there is a familiar quotation: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.” That, simply, is the situation I am in at the present time.
Jim McMurtry completed a Master’s degree at the University of Alberta under the supervision of Dr. Robert Carney, a leading authority on Indian Residential Schools who documented their positive role in the development of Indigenous communities. He obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in the Philosophy of Education. As well, Dr. McMurtry has taught for four decades, most recently French Immersion History in Abbotsford, and for a time he was a college lecturer and the Principal of Neuchâtel Junior College in Switzerland.