A reactionary speech that exhorted a return to “biblical truths” is coming under fire after the keynote speaker at an annual prayer breakfast used anti-LGBTQ2 tropes and denied that horrors of more than a century of Indian Residential Schools even existed.
Thursday morning at the Westin Calgary, Nigel Hannaford took the lectern at the Calgary Leadership Prayer Breakfast to decry an apparent move away from Christian values in the country.
“Christians in Canada, we’ve had it pretty easy for a couple of hundred years. Christian belief and Canadian law lined up quite well most of the time,” Hannaford said.
The event, in its 55th year, included former and current politicians, like Preston Manning, Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney, MLA Chantelle de Jong, Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver and Jim Stevenson, who were welcomed by emcee Heath Brown. MP Stephanie Kusie provided a recorded welcome. Mark Little, former Suncor CEO, provided a prayer. And members of the Calgary Police Service and the Canadian Armed Forces were acknowledged by the crowd.
“There were little hints that (the event) was going to be something more. One person mentioned these end times that we’re in, which I thought was interesting and a bit apocalyptic,” one person in attendance, who wished to remain anonymous over concerns of backlash and being targeted, told Global News.
“It started getting pretty dire. And by the time the keynote speaker got on, well, he just kind of let loose and I think he said some pretty hateful things.”
Stephen Harper’s former speechwriter from 2009 to 2015, Hannaford started on his topic of “God has given us the answers to the problems that we have.”
He claimed one “biblical truth” is a gender binary.
“On the other hand, the Prime Minister said earlier this year that trans women – which is a biological male – trans women are women. If they say so, believe them. He is not taking that out of the Bible.”
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Hannaford claimed teachers are “ordered” to teach sex-ed curriculum that “50 years ago, if they would have said it in the classroom, would put them in jail.” He did not provide any details.
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He also said a six-year-old Ontario girl was told, in school, that “girls are not real and boys are not real,” a case that was taken to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. The adjudicator’s decision found there was not enough evidence showing the teacher’s comments were a violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
The teacher admitted to erring in saying “there is no such things as boys and girls,” and corrected that statement in the same class.
Hannaford also claimed that a nine-year-old Calgarian girl was told by her teacher it’s OK to kiss a girl, but refused to name the girl’s father and only identified him as a Muslim man who worked for an oil company, and who relocated the family “back to Pakistan.”
One person in attendance whom Global News has agreed not to identify for safety reasons said he felt uneasy and unsafe following Hannaford’s speech.
“(Hannaford) completely invalidated the whole trans identity and then he went on to — and he kind of eased into it — by the end of this portion of his speech, he basically flat-out denied the church’s involvement in the residential school atrocities that we have evidence for. And he said there was no evidence for it,” the attendee, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ2 community, told Global News.
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Residential school denialism
Before pivoting to “some sensitive stuff,” Hannaford asked the audience to pray for him.
“No, I’m serious.”
Hannaford presented the scenario of a child coming home from school having learned about the church’s role in residential schools.
“If that is true, it’s outrageous. And I can’t tell you that it is not true, that Christians murdered Indigenous children in residential schools. How would I know?” Hannaford said to the room. “But at the moment, this is nothing more than unexamined allegations. No excavations, no bones, no names, just an allegation.”
Sean Carelton, an assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, said Hannaford’s comments were “baseless” and “misrepresentations of the evidence,” part of a larger pattern of residential school denialism that has come up in years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a series of voluminous reports in 2015 and 2016.
“Unfortunately, these types of comments have been particularly noticeable on the far right and in Alberta in particular,” he said.
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Michelle Robinson, a Sahtu Dene woman who is the granddaughter and niece of residential school survivors, said Hannaford’s open denial of residential schools is “incredibly hurtful” to survivors and their families.
“Many of us as families are being asked for our DNA to go through some of the DNA samples that have been recovered,” Robinson said. “It’s just an incredible level of denialism and not following what is happening on the ground with each of the (First) Nations that are doing this work.”
Carleton pointed to the highly-publicized work done at the Kamloops residential school to try to find remains of hundreds of likely-unmarked graves, in addition to the deaths that were already on record.
“We already know that 51 children died at the Kamloops residential school, based on church and state records,” Carelton said. “What is going on now is the process of additional searches to find potentially more children that were not caught up in the Department of Indian Affairs and individual schools’ record keeping that potentially went missing or died in the school and didn’t get recorded.”
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While it is possible more remains will not be found, “that doesn’t take away from the fact that we already know that 4,000 children died,” Carleton said.
Following the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between the 86,000 Indigenous survivors of residential schools and the Canadian government, the TRC started its work of compiling a historic record of the residential school system.
Established in 2008, the TRC received testimony from thousands of survivors, and reviewed millions of records from the federal government and a number of churches. While the Roman Catholic church was involved in running a majority of the residential schools, the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches were also involved in the schools and provided records to the commission, as shown in its reports.
Shortly after the commission began its work, then-prime minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of government, recognizing residential schools as a “sad chapter” in Canada’s history that sought to “remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them.”
“These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal,” Harper said on June 11, 2008. “Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’”
‘What spiritual warfare looks like’
Hannaford claimed ignorance in explaining the church’s documented involvement in residential schools.
“But will you let your child go on believing without proof that Christians murdered Indigenous children? After all, if it’s not true, it’s outrageous in a different way, isn’t it?” he said.
One woman could be heard saying, “But what if it is true,” which Hannaford ignored and continued with his speech.
He claimed that the history of residential schools should not be taught in schools, instead urging “truth and reconciliation.”
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“This is what happens when a country walks away from God,” he said.
“This is what spiritual warfare looks like in Canada now, where, thanks to the ancient lying spirit that misled our ancestors in the garden, strange ideas hold sway.”
Hannaford urged those in attendance to go against the laws of the land if they run contrary to their beliefs.
“We are not about the restoration of the Canada we’re losing. The Red Ensign ain’t coming back. We are about advancing the kingdom of God.”
The attendee said all but one person at the prayer breakfast gave Hannaford a standing ovation when he was done.
“It felt to me like, by the end of his speech, that he had delivered a call to action that these people were taking up and that they were going to then go and make the world that we live in an unsafe place for the people that he rallied against, through their positions of power,” he said.
Global News reached out to the prayer breakfast organizers and Hannaford, as well as McIver’s office, but received no answers to our requests for comment from them.
In a statement, Sawhney said it’s “undeniable that many unthinkable atrocities occurred at residential schools” as borne out by the TRC.
“An important part of reconciliation is that we continue to listen and learn – no matter how much time has passed – so we can all move forward on the path toward healing,” the advanced education minister said.