Canada’s « fake news » of the year

January 8, 2022

The transition to the new year is a time for taking stock. It is a kind of unwritten tradition. We elect the personality of the year, we choose the event of the year. Of course, there is the sporting achievement of the year, the film of the year, the singer of the year. Parliamentary columnists hand out their marks to ministers. Even the journalists were entitled to their little anthology this year. Then there are the lemon awards. We are living in good times in this area. But there is one thing missing from this shopping list. It is the “fake news” of the year.

The proliferation of social networks has brought back into fashion what used to be called simply fake news or, better still, ‘intox’. A word that designates an “insidious action on the minds [to accredit an opinion, demoralise, influence]”, according to Le Robert dictionary. Remember that an intox can serve a good cause as well as a bad one. That’s not really the point.

When it comes to intoxication this year, I can hardly see how we could do better than the pseudo-discovery last May of a “mass grave” or, in French, a “charnier” near a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. As writer and former journalist Louis Fournier states, “Today, a multitude of people still believe a hallucinatory false report broadcast last May by the world’s media: the bodies of dead Aboriginal children were allegedly secretly dumped in a ‘mass grave’ or even a ‘charnier’ near a former Catholic residential school of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Kamloops, British Columbia” (L’aut’Journal, 3 December 2021).

It was later learned that there was no “mass grave” or “charnier“, but simply unmarked graves or an abandoned cemetery. Thanks to historians Jim Miller and Brian Getter, we know that these children who died in the Oblate residential schools – mostly from disease and epidemics – were most likely given a proper burial. According to these historians, if these children are “missing”, it is because the Canadian government refused to pay to repatriate the bodies to their families. And that over time the crosses that adorned these graves have disappeared due to lack of maintenance.

Of course, this is not to deny the suffering that these residential schools may have represented, whose mission was to assimilate Aboriginal children by removing them from their families. But this invention, which gives the story a false smell of extermination camps, is now everywhere in the international press. “Canada divided over «charniers» of Amerindian children“, is the headline in the regional newspaper Sud Ouest, published in Bordeaux, France. The article even speaks of “cemeteries of massacred children“!

Not everyone had the rigour of the BBC, which, quoting the chief of the Cowessess Nation in Saskatchewan, Cadmus Delorme, specified that these were “unmarked graves” and not “mass grave sites“. As Louis Fournier explains, the ambiguous wording of an initial press release “led the media to talk about a mass grave, without any denial being made. A month and a half later, on 15 July, a new press release announced the “probable” presence of anonymous graves in a cemetery. But in the meantime, all the media had broadcast this dark story of a mass grave.

This example illustrates how, in these times of political radicalisation, some journalism has become susceptible to militancy and ideological discourse. What is happening to journalism is happening to too many universities, as Tara Henley writes. Henley recently left the CBC, denouncing the influence on the corporation of “a radical political ideology that has come out of the great American universities“. She joins a long list of journalists who, like American Bari Weiss of the New York Times and French cartoonist Xavier Gorce of Le Monde, have had their run-ins with the political correctness of their time.

In a fabulous novel that recounts the descent into hell of an anti-hero in the age of social networks and political correctness (Le voyant d’Étampes, Les Éditions de l’Observatoire), Abel Quentin has found the words to describe what many of those who do the job of informing and thinking are feeling in these troubled times.

The New Powers,” he writes, “had elevated emotion to the rank of supreme value, suffering to the standard of measurement of the universal […]. They crushed any antagonistic element without hesitation. They incriminated acts without considering the intention. Or rather, they deduced the intention from the acts, and cared little about individualising the penalties. They were not interested in the thickness of lives. There were the forces of Evil and there were the forces of Good.”

This book in the form of a political thriller is an extraordinary praise of nuance. The nuance that should be the other name of journalism.

Christian Rioux, columnist at Le Devoir, January 7th, 2021

Translated by Michel Virard using DeepL

Michel Virard