Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s speechwriter once wrote an article dismissing the “bogus genocide story” of Canada’s residential school system and said Indigenous youth could be “ripe recruits” for violent insurgencies.
Paul Bunner penned the column, titled “The ‘Genocide’ That Failed,” for the online magazine C2C Journal in 2013. Brunner was a speechwriter for prime minister Stephen Harper from 2006 to 2009 and was hired by Kenney last spring.
The article questioned what Bunner deemed the “unchallenged” view of residential schools.
“Vast swathes of the public education system are uncritically regurgitating the genocide story as if it were fact,” Bunner wrote, arguing that fuels certain Indigenous activists in their “never-ending demands” for money and autonomy.
Bunner argued that if Indigenous youth are “indoctrinated” in the belief that Canada wilfully tried to annihilate their ancestors it could make them “ripe recruits” for potential violent insurgencies, referring to a novel about an Indigenous uprising that he said was “frighteningly plausible.”
He encouraged people to question the balance of residential school stories, to push back against “perverse financial incentives” that “reward stories of abuse” and called for more context about the general hardships of life at that time.
In at least one interview since, Bunner has stood by the column.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and compelled by the government to attend residential schools over the course of a century.
Many relayed stories of physical abuse, sexual assault and emotional anguish at the hands of those who ran the schools. Most of the perpetrators were never prosecuted. The last federally run school closed in the late 1990s.
One of the heads of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated residential schools from 2007 to 2015 says he’s heard these arguments before, but can’t swallow them.
“I really wish he’d walked in my shoes for those 14 years,” said Chief Willie Littlechild, who was among those sent to a residential school. “I think you would have a totally different story.”
Littlechild recounted how he was stripped of his name and given a number.
“They called me 65. You idiot, 65. Stupid 65.”
He said he’s “insulted” by the arguments in Bunner’s column, but he holds no grudge.
Bunner was Harper’s chief speechwriter when the prime minister made a historic apology in the House of Commons to residential school survivors.
“There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail,” he said in 2008.
Bunner has said he didn’t write Harper’s speech. He told APTN News in 2015 that he stood by his column and wasn’t happy with Harper’s apology.
The premier’s office declined CBC News’ request to interview Bunner. Interviews with backroom staff are uncommon.
“Mr. Bunner is a speechwriter. He is employed to take the Government’s policy and put it into words. Mr. Bunner is not employed as a policy advisor nor is he involved in policy making,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
“I’ll also remind you that the Premier was a senior minister of the federal government which issued the apology and settlement. Elected officials set policy — not staff.”
The Kenney government has made several efforts to advance partnerships between the province and Indigenous groups since he was elected last year, particularly around natural resource development. The premier called it an “economic and moral imperative.”
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary says the premier’s office needs to address Bunner’s article. He added it’s a blow to Alberta’s efforts to build trust with Indigenous communities.
“This isn’t written 30 years ago. This isn’t written 20 years ago. This was written after a public apology.”
Bratt also said that while speechwriters don’t dictate policy, they can influence it like any other adviser.
Bunner’s column says that not all residential school students had a bad experience, and that white children also experienced abuse at boarding schools. He did acknowledge that Indigenous people endured worse than most.
But he blamed prominent Indigenous activists for using residential schools to propagate an “entitlement narrative” that has morphed into a “gold mine.”
“The bogus genocide story of the Canadian Aboriginal residential schools system is an insult to all of us, Native and non-Native, dead or alive, who are justifiably proud of the peaceful, tolerant, pluralistic history and values of our great country,” the article concludes.
Gabrielle Lindstrom is from the Kainaiwa First Nation in southern Alberta and teaches Indigenous studies at Mount Royal University. She wasn’t surprised when she read the article.
“I would say that these claims are very common,” she said, explaining that she often sees university students with similar misconceptions.
Lindstrom says this issue is not just about one man’s words, but generations of stereotypes against Indigenous people.
“We’ve made the abuse of children debatable and we’ve made the violence against Indigenous people something that is alleged and something that is debatable.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard from 6,500 witnesses, creating a historical database made up of five million documents. At the end of its work, the commission released 94 calls to action, which were accepted by the federal government.
The commission said the schools amounted to cultural genocide, attempted to eradicate Aboriginal culture and to assimilate Aboriginal children into mainstream Canada.
Littlechild still sees many areas for improvement — and says he wants to work on that shoulder to shoulder with people like Bunner.
“When we have challenges like this, let’s talk about it and see how we find a solution to it,” he said.
“It would serve [us] much greater if we walked that path together.”