“Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people…”
Moral panic certainly describes what happened in Salem, MA in the 17th century.
The good citizens of that quiet town became convinced there were witches living in their midst. Women were singled out and hauled before courts, where otherwise respectable people told outlandish stories about seeing them performing acts of witchcraft. These innocents were sacrificed to alleviate the hysteria that had taken firm hold in that normally sensible town so many years ago.
Moral panic also describes the Satanic panic that inexplicably took hold in North America in the 1980s. People became convinced that daycare centres were actually scenes of devil worship and ritual child sexual abuse. Several Americans were incarcerated for years on false charges.
A Canadian version took place in Martensville, Sask, near Saskatoon.
But Candis McLean, in her book When Police Become Prey describes the first time a moral panic was combined with indigenous politics.
It took place in Saskatoon two decades ago, a strange time when normally sensible residents of the city became convinced their own police officers were routinely murdering indigenous men by dumping them in the industrial areas of the city, and leaving them to freeze to death.
It became known as Saskatoon’s ‘Starlight Tours.’
As a result of the toxic combination of demanding indigenous politicians and appeasing non-indigenous politicians, many Canadians today falsely believe police officers in Saskatoon were routinely killing people.
Saskatoon is the coldest big city in North America. The combination of alcohol and minue-30 temperatures is lethal. The result is that every year people — usually young men — freeze to death while under the influence of alcohol.
Saskatoon, along with Winnipeg and Regina, also has one of the highest aboriginal populations in Canada. Just as aboriginal people have the worst incarceration rates and other similarly dismal markers as a demographic, they are also the most tragically affected by alcohol abuse.
In Firewater – How Alcohol is Killing My People Cree writer Harold R. Johnson estimated that in his Treaty 6 area — which includes Saskatoon — half of the indigenous people die directly or indirectly from alcohol abuse.
But after one particularly cold Saskatoon winter, when there were more such fatalities than usual, people somehow became convinced police officers caused these freezing deaths.
There was an almost complete lack of evidence to support this contrived theory — the only things that could be called “evidence” were the stories of two men with long criminal histories, and long histories of hatred of the police.
But, for reasons that might have more to do with politics than the pursuit of justice, seasoned RCMP and Justice officials quickly accepted their stories, and ignored both their many inconsistencies and the credible people who disputed them.
The city then fell under the spell of a witch hunt.
Every police officer was considered a potential criminal. Unscrupulous individuals torqued the story, and the media — including Maclean’s magazine — churned out false stories of murderous, racist cops.
Normally-sensible senior RCMP and justice officials started frantically looking for scapegoats to appease belligerent native leaders and take the spotlight off themselves. Those well-paid native leaders in turn loudly blamed everyone but themselves for the dismal condition of Saskatchewan’s large indigenous underclass.
Serious injustices were the result.
Police officers with impeccable reputations were thrown under the bus: scapegoated. Two officers served jail terms on charges that never should have been laid, and two were unjustly fired, with no chance to defend themselves.
Reputations and entire lives were ruined, while predatory lawyers, biased officials and irresponsible journalists had a field day. Saskatoon became a modern version of Salem, until this moral panic finally burned itself out.
Then, the city reverted to its sleepy self. Occasional tragic freezing deaths were recognized for what they are — the lethal combination of winter, alcohol, and bad choices. The moral panic was forgotten. Those ruined by it were left to pick up the pieces as best they could.
But that same moral panic returned with a vengeance on a national scale in May 2021, when hysteria about “murderous police officers” gave way to tall tales of “murderous priests.”
Chief Roseanne Casimir announced that 215 graves, containing the remains of 215 former students of the Kamloops Residential School, had been discovered. According to Casimir and her associates these children had somehow met their deaths at the hands of the priests and nuns running the school, and were then buried in secrecy late at night in the former apple orchard.
Most shocking — children, “as young as six” had been forced by these priests and nuns to dig the graves of their former comrades.
Despite the fact that the only evidence she offered in support of this preposterous theory were wild stories that had circulated in the community, and the report of an inexperienced technician who had detected some soil disturbances, a report, which was almost immediately shown to be unreliable.
An irresponsible federal government fuelled this frenzy by promising millions of dollars to any community that chose to make a claim. This offer of free money was immediately accepted by many, and copycat claims were made across the country. Cemeteries were searched to see if there just might be bodies in them!
Opportunists piled onto this bandwagon. For reasons that future writers will explore in the coming decades, the entire country seemed to fall under the spell of these outlandish claims, despite the fact that there was no credible evidence to support them.
As had occurred in Saskatoon two decades earlier, politicians and police rushed to appease the demands of indigenous leaders. The media acted more like cheerleaders than objective reporters. Gullible journalists outdid themselves in embellishing the story.
What were in fact soil disturbances became ‘graves,’ and ‘human remains.’ The New York Times took it furthest of all with claims of a “mass grave” — conjuring up images of Holocaust atrocities.
The prime minister added to the panic. Instead of waiting for any real evidence he immediately ordered that all flags on all federal buildings be flown at half-mast — where they remained for months.
Priests became the ‘witches’ and churches burned as the moral panic went into high gear.
The ‘Chicken Littles’ ruled the day. Frenzied reconciliation projects were launched across the country. Schools erected tiny pretend graveyards where 215 plastic orange ribbons representing the 215 ‘graves’ were displayed.
Normally-sensible Parliamentarians passed a genocide motion based on the bogus story. A new national day of mourning came into being, with people wearing orange shirts that symbolized the imagined dead Kamloops students, and the “tens of thousands” of other such “missing children” that reckless indigenous leaders falsely claimed had been secretly murdered and buried all across the country.
In short, Canada lost its collective mind.
But, just as the moral panic played itself out in Saskatoon, and people realized they had been lied to, the same thing is starting to happen in Canada today.
It is starting to burn itself out. As excavations actually occur, such as at Shubnecadie, Camsell, Kuper and most recently Pine Creek, Canadians are beginning to realize those stories about priests killing and secretly burying children are just that — stories, urban legends, conspiracy theories, ghost stories or whatever you want to call them — in truth, anti-Catholic hatred.
The international community is also beginning to notice the moral panic.
Matt Walsh of Daily Wire, for example, has a hard time understanding why so many Canadians were willing to believe such an obviously false story. The fact that so many Indigenous people have been encouraged to believe these falsehoods, by irresponsible leaders, such as Kimberly Murray and Roseanne Archibald, has resulted in a crisis in the indigenous community that has no apparent solution.
But ordinary citizens are becoming very angry. They are realizing they have been lied to. Not just by irresponsible indigenous leaders, but by people they are expected to trust — namely their own elected representatives and mainstream media.
People will also come to realize they have been very badly served by the RCMP.
Instead of continuing with the investigation they started at Kamloops — and probably determining quickly that the secret burial claim was nonsense — the RCMP shamefully abandoned their investigation for political reasons, and forced the country to endure two years of uncertainty and false guilt.
Just as the RCMP attempted to deal with Saskatoon’s Starlight Tours moral panic by political means instead of just doing their job as police, they chose to play politics at Kamloops. The result speaks for itself.
It will take some time for those most committed to the Kamloops moral panic to come to their senses.
Will the indigenous leaders ever admit their stories about murderous priests and late-night burials are pure fiction?
Will the senior politicians and media leaders ever admit they behaved badly?
Will the RCMP start acting like police again, instead of playing political games?
Just as unlikely as are the chances the scapegoated Saskatoon police officers will ever see justice, unless enough honest Saskatchewan people demand that they get it. No sign of that happening yet.
But perhaps these alarming episodes can get us thinking. What is it about us that makes us so susceptible to moral panics? Why do we allow ourselves to be so easily led? Have we lost our ability to think for ourselves?
Because we are certain to experience ‘Chicken Littles’ in the future springing more sensational but improbable claims on us, and we now know that we can’t count on our elected leaders — or the RCMP — to respond appropriately to them. They are too fixed on the politics.
We also know we can’t count on our mainstream media to do so. It is more concerned with sending the right moral signals than reporting the facts.
So, maybe the next time we are told the sky is falling we would be best served by relying on wise voices we trust.
And on our own common sense.
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.