On Monday, May 31, 2021, Matt Letts, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge, sent the following missive to all members of the Faculty.
Statement on Residential School News – *trigger warning*
The discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops residential school in the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in BC has horrified and saddened us all. As faculty, staff, students and administrators, guests living in Blackfoot Confederacy territory, this atrocity alerts us to our responsibility and commitment to seek an end to all forms of settler colonial violence and ongoing racism and to deliver on the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Some of our colleagues and students may need extra support at this difficult time. I, thus, remind you of our Counselling Services, the Employee and Family Assistance Program and other community resources. Many of our students and their families have been impacted by the residential school system and continue to be impacted by inequities and injustices. As always, please also provide accommodation and support to students in need.
On behalf of the Faculty of Arts & Science, I thank you for your efforts toward our commitments and to our students at this time of grieving and reflection. #indigenouslivesmatter #MMIWG #TRC
Matthew G. Letts, Ph.D.
Dean, Faculty of Arts & Science
University of Lethbridge – Iniskim
* * *
I’ve given Dean Letts the opportunity to retract. Silence has been the stern reply. But to be fair, he can’t very well retract, without giving grievous offence to those he wrote this letter to placate in the first place. So he’s put himself in a difficult position, a position he could have avoided by doing a little editing before pressing send. Still, his having declined to reply gives me constructive leave to comment as follows:
Letts might be forgiven for presuming to speak on behalf of “us all”, notwithstanding how implausible it is that anyone with enough education to be teaching at a Canadian university could have been either “horrified” or “saddened” by this particular news. Of the billions of people who’ve walked this Earth, I’d venture to guess the vast majority lie in unmarked graves. Were one to be horrified and saddened every time one of these graves was unearthed, I can’t imagine how she could enjoy a meal or a swim or a joke. Surely a life of such unremitting horror and sadness could not be a life worth living.
But to be fair, talk of being horrified and saddened is patter, and patter is social lubricant. Not unlike when a priest tells a grieving parishioner that “Your child is now in the loving arms of Mary, mother of God!”, it has no cognitive content, nor is it intended to. As I say, it’s patter. So to call Letts out on his assurance that we’re all “horrified and saddened” would just be churlish. And as my readers know, I am anything but churlish.
No such pass, however, can be afforded the brain-numbing stupidity of referring to us as “guests” on Blackfoot Confederacy territory. A guest is someone who leaves when asked. If he doesn’t – and we won’t – he’s something else. Imagine telling the relatives of the 253 Palestinians killed during those eleven days – 66 of them children – that we Jews are just occasionally misbehaving “guests”.
“Uh, yeah, uh, sorry about that. We’re just packing up, but we’ll be gone in the morning.”
Calling us “guests” is just adding insult to injury. And by presuming to speak for “us all”, Letts is implicating all of us in this stupidity.
But it gets worse. Apparently there’s no need to wait until we find out how these children died, over how many decades, under what circumstances they were buried, how the death rate among the 30% of indigenous children consigned to these schools compared to that of the 70% who remained in their communities, or to the death rate of similarly disadvantaged non-indigenous children at the time. Letts seems to know a priori that the death and burial of these 215 children was an “atrocity”.
Atrocity is a word we reserve for 215 children – or, in the case of Babi Yar, 215 thousand children – being lined up and shot. So to pronounce this as an atrocity is to have laid a charge, held a trial, and issued a verdict with some decanal “special way of knowing”. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. And even better work if, in the wake of such a gnostic pronouncement, you can keep it, as I’m sure Letts will.
Letts’ letter is offensive. But what renders it as risible as it is offensive, is the “trigger warning”. Apparently Letts had no idea the story was covered by pretty much every major news network the world over. Does he really think some of his colleagues are learning of it for the first time from him?
And of what exactly are we being warned? That there’s something coming that might upset us, such that if we don’t want to be upset, we should stop reading? That if we are going to read on, perhaps we should sit down lest we faint?
Unlike Letts, I give my students one and only one trigger warning. “A university,” I tell them, “is a place where one is exposed to ideas that might be upsetting. Trigger warning: this is a university.”
This letter serves no purpose whatsoever other than to virtue signal. Everyone who reads it knows this. Some people find it heartwarming, others find it risible, and still others find it cringeworthy. But nobody needs to be told she’ll be too horrified and sad to attend that dinner party tonight. Save Matt Letts, of course, who’ll be asking his hosts whether they’d mind if he stays another century or two.
Each of us, the Dean included, has a right to make an ass of himself. But no one, the Dean included, has a right to make an ass of “us all”. As my readers know, I’m perfectly capable of making an ass of myself all on my own. I neither need nor appreciate any help from Dean Letts!