City Hall

Councillor Geoff Young defends comments about residential schools, burials

Young objected to the use of the words ‘genocide’ and ‘mass grave’ in a council debate on Canada Day celebrations

By Jimmy Thomson
June 12, 2021
City Hall

Councillor Geoff Young defends comments about residential schools, burials

Young objected to the use of the words ‘genocide’ and ‘mass grave’ in a council debate on Canada Day celebrations

By Jimmy Thomson
Jun 12, 2021
Victoria City Hall. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
City Hall

Councillor Geoff Young defends comments about residential schools, burials

Young objected to the use of the words ‘genocide’ and ‘mass grave’ in a council debate on Canada Day celebrations

By Jimmy Thomson
June 12, 2021
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Councillor Geoff Young defends comments about residential schools, burials
Victoria City Hall. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

In a Thursday debate at Victoria City Council, councillors were discussing a motion to postpone the virtual Canada Day celebration this year when the discussion veered into even more controversial territory.

The motion by Mayor Lisa Helps and councillor Marianne Alto was in recognition of the discovery of 215 children’s bodies in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, as well as those who died at residential schools on Vancouver Island, and suggested the Canada Day event be replaced with something that integrated more opportunity for learning and reconciliation.

The motion included the sentence, “The history of our country’s genocidal relationship with First Nations has been once again revealed in a way that is painful for the Lekwungen people as well as First Nations across the country.”

Councillor Geoff Young spoke up, taking issue with the use of the word “genocide.”

Young said he didn’t think the word was a “fair characterization” of the institutions.

“I do object—and I know this is a more controversial topic on which people can disagree—to your characterization of Canada’s ‘genocidal history,’” Young said in the meeting. “It certainly has been suggested that the residential schools represented a form of cultural genocide, and that, indeed, that may have been their purpose. But… along with many other people, I don’t concur that genocide is a fair characterization of our relationship with Indigenous people. At least in BC.”

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the schools as “cultural genocide” while the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry concluded that the violence it had investigated “amounts to a race-based genocide.”

A column in the Times Colonist by Royal Roads University professor Richard Kool on Saturday referred to the discovery of the unmarked graves as Canada's “Holocaust moment.”

A paraphrasing of Young's comments online led to a significant backlash, with council receiving calls and emails throughout the following days.

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Young said in response to questions from Capital Daily that he was trying to raise concerns about the specific word, unaccompanied by “cultural” as a qualifier.

“The use of the term ‘genocide’ without the distinction of ‘cultural genocide’ continues to be an issue for governments in Canada,” Young wrote in an email.

“I do not disagree with the use of the term ‘cultural genocide,’ an effort to erase language and culture, as applied to the residential schools, but I do not agree that there was a concerted effort to exterminate indigenous peoples in BC, which is what I understand as the meaning of the term ‘genocide,” he wrote in another.

The use of the term has been hotly debated in Canadian federal politics, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged that “what happened amounts to genocide.”

Young said he regrets bringing up his concerns at that moment.

“Given the misunderstanding and distress my comment evoked, in hindsight I should not have objected to the Mayor’s description, since I agree that ‘genocidal’ could apply to many individual events Canadian history, and that it could reasonably include ‘cultural genocide,’” he wrote.

He stopped short of walking back his comment entirely.

“I do continue to believe that characterizing the entire purpose of Canadian indigenous policy as being genocidal in the usual sense would be unfair.”

Mayor Lisa Helps said the council meeting wasn’t the time to split hairs.

“I thought it was very odd to dive into two of the things I had said,” she said. “We were supposed to be discussing what to do about our Canada Day event.”

Fellow councillor Jeremy Loveday agreed with the mayor.

“I just don’t know why he would say it,” he said. “I don’t understand the motivation. It seemed out of context to the discussion we were having.”

Unmarked burials

Another comment that raised eyebrows Thursday was Young’s differentiation, shortly thereafter, between the terms “mass grave” and “unmarked burial” in reference to the remains of 215 children found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Comments made earlier in the council meeting had referred to a “mass grave” though that language was not in the official motion.

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir has publicly clarified the discovery was an undocumented and “unmarked burial site.”

But what specifically drew attention was Young’s comparison of the collection of burials to formally demarcated cemeteries in Victoria like Ross Bay Cemetery.

“My understanding is that this was never a mass grave in the sense of a single burial of a large number of people,” Young said. “Rather is an area like Ross Bay Cemetery or Pioneer Square Park where a number of people have been buried, but not necessarily, like, no suggestion that a large number of people—children, in this case—who died at the same time were all buried at once,” Young objected.

Helps said the comparison was inappropriate.

“There’s no comparison,” Helps says. “In the Ross Bay Cemetery, people are buried with headstones, with their family name, and the date of birth and death.”

The burials in Kamloops were unmarked and only discovered through the use of ground-penetrating radar, guided by local historical knowledge.

In the end, the motion to postpone the Canada Day virtual celebration carried unanimously. There will be an event held by Sept. 6. The City will produce an hour-long broadcast that will include stories, Indigenous history, and context around Canada’s history of residential schools.

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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