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HENRY ERGAS: ‘Truth-telling’ crusade abandons history for morality

Two weeks ago, the small town of Quesnel in British Columbia was rocked by a scandal. The mayor’s wife had, it seems, distributed copies of Grave Error, a recently published book that contests the claim that hundreds, if not thousands, of Indigenous children died, and were buried in unmarked mass graves, in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.

After a stormy town council meeting, the mayor managed to hold on to his job, albeit at the cost of publicly condemning his wife’s conduct and endorsing a resolution that denounces the book and laments the hurt it causes Indigenous Canadians.

That the issue provoked so intense a reaction is unsurprising. Canadians had received a seismic shock when tribal chief Rosanne Casimir announced, on May 27, 2021, that ground-penetrating radar had “located the remains of 215 missing children” in an area adjacent to British Columbia’s Kamloops Indian Residential School, which had closed in 1978.

Three days after Casimir’s announcement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered that Canadian flags be flown at half-mast for an unprecedented 165 days to honour the “children whose lives were taken at the Kamloops residential school”.

Trudeau’s dramatic gesture induced waves of additional discoveries. By August 2023, traces of mass graves had been located by GPR at 20 former residential schools. As remorse gripped the country, Pope Francis urged Canadians to engage in collective repentance and seek forgiveness for their shameful history.

However, it didn’t take long for difficulties to arise. Excavations were undertaken, but no mass graves were found. Nor did any solid evidence emerge of scores of children going missing. On the contrary, particularly after the mid-1930s, both the then federal Department of Indian Affairs and the Indian schools tracked the school system’s student population, all the more so as federal subsidies depended on the numbers enrolled.

In short, the contentions were, at best unproven, at worst concocted. Yet they did not descend from the skies. Rather, they had originated in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked with establishing the facts about the Indian Residential Schools.

The Commission’s six-volume report, published in 2015, did not mince words. The Indian Residential Schools, it said, had systematically abused children, in some instances brutally.

Children had disappeared, presumably killed; as for those who escaped that fate, they were “Survivors” with a capital “S”, whose lives, and those of their descendants, had been permanently scarred, if not shattered, by the experience.

It was therefore only fitting that every “Survivor” be compensated financially – as they eventually were, at a cost of about $5bn.

Detailing the report’s glaring deficiencies would take too long. What is striking, however, is the Commission’s casual attitude to uncovering the truth. It relied on uncorroborated witness statements, even when they were manifestly implausible; there was none of the searing testing of memories that characterised the Holocaust trials. To make things worse, witnesses were actively encouraged to criticise the system and, even more importantly, actively discouraged from defending it.

Indeed, the Commission’s proceedings were designed to elicit, and psychologically reward, traumatic memories. Each hearing began with warnings that “tears would be shed” about “a very painful past”. Handkerchiefs were distributed, as “health support workers”, dressed in brightly coloured clothing, were introduced to participants. Any used tissues were to be placed in a “sacred fire” by a “fire-keeper”, thus returning them “to the Creator as part of their healing”.

In that trauma-laden atmosphere, the slightest suggestion that the schools might not have been part of a “genocidal” scheme was met with outrage – as Reverend Tom Cavanaugh, an Oblate Father, learned to his cost. When Cavanaugh said his school had offered a good education in a nurturing environment, the chief commissioner called for “health supports” to be urgently provided to the audience, which descended into uncontrollable sobbing. After that, very few witnesses who might have confirmed Cavanaugh’s claims came forward – nor were any sought.

Rather, in its effort to shun “denialism”, the Commission placed scarcely any weight on the schools’ record in producing generations of Indigenous leaders or on the published memoirs of their founders, students, teachers and administrators.

It is simply impossible to imagine a starker contrast to the Western tradition for determining historical truth. Hadn’t Herodotus, its founding father, stressed, in his History’s very first sentence, the importance of recognising that “magnificent deeds” had been accomplished by “Greeks and barbarians alike”, rather than by one side alone?

And wasn’t he careful to emphasise the difference between history and memory, noting that the historian, unlike the mere chronicler, “must tell what he has been told, but is scarcely forced to believe it”?

Thucydides, the greatest ancient historian, went even further. Those who, “aiming more at attracting their audience than getting at the truth, put their accounts together from materials which cannot be checked”, were, he wrote, just myth makers. Especially lamentable was uncritically accepting testimony, for “different witnesses give different accounts, because of partiality or imperfect memories”.

Testing every claim “as thoroughly as possible”, he differentiated himself from the charlatans by systematically presenting alternative viewpoints, so readers could judge for themselves.

That, centuries later, was the model Leopold von Ranke had in mind when he set down the axioms framing modern historical method. The task of history, he wrote in 1824, was not to serve this interest or that; it was to scrupulously ascertain the past “as it had really been – wie es eigentlich."

Nor was good historical analysis a morality tale, praising some and damning others; it was a reasoned account of what actually happened. And objectivity in framing that account was not a virtue; it was a duty.

Now, however, all that has been cast aside. Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991-96) led the way, arguing that its Aboriginal “conception of history” was not concerned with “establishing objective truth” but with probing a deeper, more spiritual reality. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission echoed that call, saying “factual truth” was just one of truth’s many forms, and not necessarily the most important.

Its Canadian equivalent then took the final step, judging research not on its accuracy and impartiality but on the basis of whether it “benefited Indigenous people”, including through the “defence of Indigenous sovereignty”.

Truth, it seems, would not be the basis for reconciliation; what served reconciliation, as defined by the Commission, would be the basis for determining what was the truth. As for those who – like the Quesnel mayor’s wife – dared question whether that “truth” portrayed the past “as it had really been”, all they could expect was to be ostracised.

Judging by Victoria’s “truth-telling” Yoorrook Commission, that is where we are headed, with the defeat of the voice only strengthening the activists’ push in that direction.

But no free society can survive without an overriding commitment to truth and truthfulness. For by illuminating a path through the darkness of reality, they are the foundation of the most important of human freedoms: the freedom to rationally shape a better life and a better world. When they go, human freedom invariably goes too – and the prospect of genuine reconciliation will go with them.

Henry Ergas AO is an economist who spent many years at the OECD in Paris before returning to Australia. He has taught at a number of universities, including Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the University of Auckland and the École Nationale de la Statistique et de l'Administration Économique in Paris, served as Inaugural Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong and worked as an adviser to companies and governments.

This piece first appeared in The Australian

3,378 views84 comments


Apr 15

There has been a lot of debate about teaching history to children again in NZ. The question was/is "what history"? Has anyone seen the syllabus? I'm kind of frightened to ask really.

I recall my old history teacher we nicknamed "The Colonel". He loved the name of course, slightly British and eccentric, lean and mustachioed, piercing blue eyes and a mastery of the English language, a considered and discerning brain....loved grabbing naughty boys by the ear, twisting slightly and marching them firmly and straight-armed down to the "office".

Boys could be seen grinning sometimes. It was a kind of honour having this treatment from The Colonel. You only received this treatment in the Third form of course, by the time…


Goodbye Age of Reason, we will miss you very much.

This is the Age of Feelings when emotions must be stimulated by sensational propaganda and "evidence" concocted but never questioned or tested for validity. When the feelings of some identified "victims" are disturbed they must be eased by any means possible whether the presumed cause of the upset is real or imagined.

Evidence suggesting that some people of a group were harmed by some people of another group is presented as "proof" that all members of the "victim" group were harmed by all members of the "guilty" group. Of course, the guilty group is always defined as white people descended from European ancestors that have traditional Western values, morals, ethics and culture. Western…


 Ergas writes:

What is striking, however, is the Commission’s casual attitude to uncovering the truth. It relied on uncorroborated witness statements, even when they were manifestly implausible;

This is eerily close to the Waitangi Tribunal's use of of tribal oral history. What would be promptly dismissed as hearsay evidence by a real Court, is being written into the record as fact by the Tribunal. Large amounts of taxpayer's money are therefore being paid to tribal interests on the strength of dodgy, self serving, "evidence" of this kind.

And although Ergas is commenting on an Australian scenario, his subsequent words again echo the New Zealand situation when he says:

Its Canadian equivalent then took the final step, judging research not on…

Replying to

Couldn’t agree more . The whole thing is an orchestrated racket . The ultra , ultra Maori -partial Waitangi Tribunal and it’s “ gravy train” for Maori , much of it based on oral-only evidence that is totally unsupported and unsubstantiated and unable to be , is a disgrace to justice —- a total rip-off. The Waitangi Tribunal should have been shut down years ago . It is stealing on a grand scale .

Hugh Perrett


Anyone can be excused for not knowing about the corollary to this; the epidemic of vandalism and arson of Christian churches in Canada. Given the deafening silence from "mainstream" media.

Ironically the progressive establishment is hell bent on deploying "hate speech" laws against its own political conservative targets, on the most tenuous of grounds (micro-aggressions, hurt feelings etc) while literally manufacturing libels that lead to very tangible expressions of hate against Christian institutions.


This is an excellent article, with possibly one of the most powerful points I’ve read in a closing paragraph.

I also thought this:

Nor was good historical analysis a morality tale, praising some and damning others”

was an excellent reminder!

Thanks very much.

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