After four decades as a teacher, Jim McMurtry was fired February 21st by the Abbotsford School District. McMurtry shared in a tweet that he was “charged with ‘extremely serious misconduct’ for teaching residential school deaths [were] mostly from disease, fires, accidents.”
According to an article in the National Post, the incident that led to his firing happened two years ago, shortly after the news broke of the 215 “unmarked graves” at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021. When one of McMurtry’s students said that priests had murdered and tortured the children, McMurtry responded by explaining that most children at residential schools died from disease, especially tuberculosis. Within an hour, McMurtry was being disciplined for his comment in the classroom.
But was he right? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission devoted years to studying the deaths at residential schools and its report concluded that where the cause of death was known, the most common cause was tuberculosis. Unfortunately, this didn’t align with the narrative that the Abbotsford School Board wants to advance. “Mr. McMurtry’s personal opinions regarding residential schools were seen in contradiction to the truth and reconciliation work that is currently underway in the District,” the board report said.
McMurtry has a master’s degree in the history of education and a doctorate in philosophy of education, specializing in Indigenous history. That may explain why he didn’t back down. “There’s people who believe that Canada is systemically racist and that all our ancestors were monsters. And I’m the person who is saying, ‘Well, let’s debate it. Let’s look at it.’” He added “Teachers are walking on eggshells on all sorts of issues. Teachers need to stop now and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
It isn’t just the Abbotsford School District that’s on the offensive. In response to growing questions about the news reports of unmarked graves, NDP MP Leah Gazan told the CBC that she plans to draft legislation to “outlaw attempts to deny that genocide and make false assertions about residential schools.”
In a sense, it might seem a small thing to note that the deaths at the schools were in large part due to tuberculosis and not torture and murder. After all, the blame for the deaths of children who caught tuberculosis at schools that they were forced to attend could also be laid at the government’s feet. So McMurtry wasn’t defending the government here or the priests. What he was defending was the truth of the matter. And the truth is critical if we care about justice and reconciliation.