Source: City of Quesnel (YouTube)

A British Columbia city council meeting erupted in chaos as debates over a controversial book on residential schools led to heated exchanges and calls for the mayor’s resignation. 

The book at the centre of the controversy, “Grave Error: How the Media Misled Us (and the Truth about Residential Schools)” sparked a widespread backlash from some in the B.C. city of Quesnel, particularly among council members and Indigenous groups. True North is the publisher of the collection of essays. 

The controversy began when Pat Morton, the wife of Mayor Ron Paull, distributed 10 copies of the book, which has stirred controversy over its critical analysis of certain claims about residential schools in Canada, specifically those regarding purported unmarked grave discoveries. 

The distribution led to a packed council meeting, where supporters and opponents of the book voiced their concerns.

During the meeting, some attendees, many wearing traditional Indigenous attire, jeered at speakers defending the book, including Morton and Prof. Frances Widdowson, one of the Grave Error’s several contributors.

Morton expressed regret over the division the book’s distribution had caused, stating, “I’m sorry you’re here due to the actions of this council. I’m sorry if my actions sharing the book have upset you.”

Morton asked the audience to listen to her as she had listened to other speakers. 

“I’d like you to listen to me. I listened to you, so please listen to me,” said Morton.

Widdowson faced significant opposition when she questioned the council’s stance on misinformation, specifically regarding claims of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School which were spread by the media but have never been verified.

When it was Widdowson’s turn to speak, members of the gallery jeered the professor and author. 

“Does the council concern itself with misinformation? Is it opposed to misinformation being spread and entered into the record? If so, does it agree that this is misinformation because there is no evidence of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School?” asked Widdowson. 

In response, councillors Laurey-Anne Roodenburg and Scott Elliott said Widdowson’s queries and opinions were unwelcome because she didn’t have lived experience as an Indigenous person. 

“Her opinion in this chamber does not count. She’s asking us to comment on something that comes from qualified individuals that dealt with this that lived through this. Ma’am, you are not welcome here,” said Elliott.

Earlier in the meeting, Elliott criticized the book as “denialist literature,” despite the fact that the book does not deny the facts surrounding abuses that took place at the historic schools. 

Elliot then asked for Paull’s resignation as mayor. Elliott was also joined by a group of First Nations chiefs who called on the mayor to resign. 

The meeting, attended by over 300 people, followed a larger gathering of more than 500 at the Nazko office, with many participants marching to city hall in protest. The Lhtako Dene Nation has accused the book of downplaying the harms inflicted by residential schools, a sentiment echoed by the city council in a unanimous motion to denounce the book as harmful, passed on March 19.

In defense, the book’s editors, C.P. Champion and Tom Flanagan, issued a press release arguing that the council’s condemnation was unfounded, asserting that “Grave Error” does not question the existence of Indian residential schools. Widdowson added that the book aims to correct false claims regarding clandestine burials at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, questioning the council’s familiarity with the book’s content.